Coronavirus: Thai massage parlours reopen but not business as usual

SPH Brightcove Video
Thai massage parlours opened their doors this week after restrictions ease across the country, but customers have not returned.
Therapists wait for customers at a traditional Thai massage shop in Bangkok, on June 3, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - In the party district of Nana, massage parlours had a tough time finding customers with masseurs lining the streets in the hope of attracting customers into near-empty shops.

"It's because foreign tourists are not allowed into the country yet," said Mr Nirun Thongkuntong, a masseur at Cha Cha massage.

Although the government has allowed some businesses, including massage parlours and spas, to reopen from Monday (June 1), international travellers are still barred from entering the country.

The border closure from April 4, which makes an exception for repatriation and cargo flights, will last until the end of June.

By sunset, a few local customers were seen inside Cha Cha massage.

"I just had to come out. I haven't had a massage in months," said Bee, a 50-year-old housewife who took her housekeeper out for their first foot massage since partial lockdown measures were imposed on March 18.

She would normally get a massage once a week.

"I respected the rules so I did not call a home service," she added, referring to a loophole where massage therapists were not legally barred from taking their business to a customer's home.

Customers have to now register before a massage, either by writing down their names and phone numbers or scanning the government's QR code with their phones.

Because of social distancing measures, the massage parlours are only allowed half their capacity with chairs placed 1.5 metres apart.

In Nana, customers had their temperature checked before being allowed in, a practice adopted by other businesses in the city.

Masseurs working at Lek massage parlour in Bangkok. ST PHOTO: HATHAI TECHAKITTERANUN

The massage therapists wore masks and face shields to protect themselves.

At Charawi massage parlour, the owner put up partitions, made from PVC pipes and plastic sheets, between chairs and beds.

The parlour, which would usually have an army of more than 100 masseurs, recalled fewer than 10 in the first week of its reopening.

Charawi's owner Mr Pitak Yotha said it had around five customers a day since June 1.

It was bursting at the seams pre-pandemic, with hundreds of customers looking for a massage, many belonging to group tours from China and other parts of Asia.

"It's not worth it for me to reopen. The earnings won't cover rent, electricity and water bills.

"But I'm doing this to help the staff earn something," said Mr Pitak, who has been operating the business there since April 2017.

For months, he led a group of massage parlour owners to petition the government to lift the closure order, arguing that many owners had been denied the government's low-interest loans.

He said the 15,000 baht ($663) cash handout the government gave to workers who lost their jobs, including masseurs, was also not enough.

"Thai massage is now part of Unesco's intangible world heritage list.

"I'm hoping the government will pay more attention to us and help massage parlour operators and masseurs," he added.

Thai massage was added to the Unesco list in December last year.

Massage parlours are among venues allowed to reopen this week as part of Phase 3 of the easing of lockdown measures, which kicked in on May 3 after Thailand mostly registered fewer than 10 cases a day from late April.

Other businesses allowed to reopen from Monday include cinemas, theatres, zoos, gyms and some sports venues for training purposes, such as football pitches and volleyball and basketball courts.

But like massage parlours, demand has yet to pick up in those venues.

According to Thailand's Public Health Ministry, there are over 150,000 massage therapists and nearly 10,000 massage parlours registered with the ministry across the country.

But Mr Pitak said the actual number of masseurs may be double the official figure as many have not registered themselves with the government.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.