Manufacturers of face masks must immediately cut down mask exports to less than 10% of their total production, and more than half of production must be supplied to government designated sellers, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety announced Thursday.
Domestic demand for masks in South Korea has shot up drastically as the number of confirmed patients with COVID-19 -- the official name of this virus -- spiked from 104 to 1,766 cases in just a week. Health authorities are now advising everyone to wear masks in the presence of others and to change into a new mask every day.
"The government will make sure that 90% of total mask production in South Korea will be supplied within the country," Hong Nam-ki, the nation's finance minister, said Thursday. "Around 140 companies that produce masks can provide 10 million masks a day, which means that 9 million masks will now be available for domestic sales."
Public outcry over a lack of face masks ran high in recent days, especially in the hard-hit areas of Daegu and Cheongdo, where more than 80% of all confirmed cases were found.
"My mother and I had to line up from six in the morning at a convenience store," Jung Dohwan, a banker, told ABC News. "The store was selling only one box of masks per person, so I changed my jacket and used two different credit cards, pretending to be a different person, and bought three boxes."
"The lines were so long, and some didn’t even get a chance to buy. This is total nonsense." Park Mija, 55, who bought masks at the Happy Department Store, told ABC News.
"I visited over 10 pharmacies, local supermarkets and convenience stores in a day to buy masks for my family, but came home with nothing," Jun Hyunjung, a mother of two children, told ABC News.
Prices of face masks skyrocketed even before the sudden surge of COVID-19 hit South Korea due to strong demand from neighboring China. Chinese brokers were reportedly flying into South Korea to stockpile made-in-Korea face masks in bulks of containers starting mid-January. They often paid cash, offering three times the normal price, then sold them with even more of an added premium added back home, according to local media. Face masks export to China from Feb. 1 through 20 was 200 times higher than December last year, according to the Korea Customs Service.
"I have to change masks more than once every day because of my job," Choi Eunho, a fitness instructor and gym owner, told ABC News. "Government should keep its promise to provide masks for people at a good price very soon, or they will confront a great amount of rage (from the public)."
"I tried various online vendors but they, too, were all sold out. Some people even resell them at second-hand trade websites at an expensive price. Still there are people eager to buy used masks," Gyuwon Kim, a college student living in Seoul, told ABC News.
Starting Friday, 5 million face masks will be available at state-run retail platforms, the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation, Small & Medium Business Distribution Center and post offices, the government says. Prices will start around less than a dollar.
In addition, 2.4 million face masks will be allocated to 24,000 pharmacies nationwide everyday. Customers are allowed to purchase up to five masks each, said Lee Eui-kyung, minister of Food and Drug Safety.
ABC News’ Joohee Cho, Heejin Kang and Jiyung Koo contributed to this report.