Coronavirus: Thais travelling domestically in droves amid lockdown easing, prompting authorities to urge caution

People walking in a street food market in Bangkok, on June 9, 2020.
People walking in a street food market in Bangkok, on June 9, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK - Thais are travelling to other parts of the country in droves as the country is gradually easing its partial lockdown measures, including inter-provincial travel restrictions, prompting reclosure warnings from officials.

On June 3, which was a public holiday, thousands flocked to Bang Saen beach, an hour-and-a-half drive from Bangkok, with photos of long lines of up to 2km of traffic into the beach area becoming viral online.

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha warned that if the incident at Bang Saen recurs, Phase 4 - the final phase of the lockdown easing expected later this month - could be postponed.

The first phase of reopening of places began on May 3, with restaurants, hair salons, parks, markets, open-air sports venues, pet grooming salons and nurseries opening. People have to wear masks and practise safe distancing and are also required to check-in and check-out at the venues.

Among the venues that have yet to reopen are schools, bars and nightclubs, sports stadiums, national parks, amusement parks, soapy massage parlours and concert and exhibition halls.

At the June 6-7 weekend, Thais still thronged Bang Saen and a few other reopened beaches like Hua Hin, 140km south of the capital, but it was not the same chaotic scene as the previous week.

Fourteen checkpoints have been set up around Bang Saen beach since last week, said Mr Narongchai Khunpluem, mayor of Saensuk Municipality in charge of the beach.

"Some people have not complied with the regulations. They refused to wear masks and move from crowded spots. This is worrisome," he said. "If it gets out of hand, the beach may have to be closed."

Tourist attractions no more than 300km from Bangkok have welcomed 50 per cent to 70 per cent of their usual visitor numbers so far, according to Tourism Council of Thailand president Chairat Trirattanajarasporn.

 
 

Thailand’s international flight ban will come to an end on June 30.

"Bangkokians are heading to the nearest beaches and floating markets. I think people just wanted to get out as we have been trapped at home for so long," said Mr Richard Barrow, a prominent Thailand-based travel blogger.

"For myself, it was really great to feel the sea breeze on my skin once more," added the blogger, who travelled to Hua Hin in the past week. "In Pattaya, there are still quite a few hotels closed, but I think in a couple of weeks, it will get busier there too."

In a rare U-turn, Paragon Cineplex, a cinema in Bangkok's shopping district, reopened on June 1, and then closed for three days on June 7-9, after fans of two actors flocked to see their idols after their promotional event at the cinema was broadcast live on social media.

"We deeply apologise for the inappropriate situation after the filming in the cinema. We will be careful not to repeat the incident. We are still prioritising social distancing measures," said a statement from the cinema.

Although most places of business are complying with the government's social distancing measures, people have started to lower their guard, which could lead to another wave of outbreak.

"I don't think the reopenings are too soon. I'm not worried about that. What is more worrying is how some people are becoming careless. They are going out more and not wearing masks," Dr Thanarak Plipat, deputy director of the Department of Disease Control of the Public Health Ministry, told The Straits Times.

 
 

"As long as precautionary measures are done right, even high-risk venues can reopen," he added.

As of Tuesday (June 9), there have been a total of 3,121 confirmed coronavirus cases and 58 deaths in Thailand, the first country to have reported cases outside China. No local case has been reported over the past two weeks, which saw only confirmed cases of Thais returning from overseas in state and local quarantine.