The collective moaning about having to survive a month without alcohol might have elicited laughter or even derision from some people in Thailand. For bar owners, distributors and entry-level employees who depend on the food and beverage industry to make ends meet, however, the booze ban is no laughing matter.
Thailand is one of just three countries to have banned alcohol as a measure to curb the spread of coronavirus, joining only South Africa and Greenland in this distinction. If public health minister Anutin Charnivirakul is to be believed
, the potential spread of Covid-19 justifies a ban on alcohol sales until the danger has passed, whenever that may be.
Local business owners are already feeling the pinch.
“F&B and hospitality are some of the most heavily hit industries,” explains Kim Wachtveitl
, co-owner of Wine Garage
. “Not all businesses did well in March, but it was okay. Around the middle of March, we realized the business model we rely on [supplying hotels and restaurants] could not be continued—90 percent of our business just disappeared. Private orders increased, but not enough to make up for it.”
The option of selling direct to consumers was short-lived, however. On April 10, a nationwide ban on alcohol sales went into effect, expected to last a minimum of 10 days in some provinces and through the end of month in others. That measure was later extended through April across Thailand.
While the lockdown introduced its own set of challenges, the ban on the sale of alcoholic beverages left hospitality-fueled distributors like Wine Garage without even the ability to sell direct to consumers.
“You know, we understand—it’s Songkran, people want to celebrate,” he adds. “But Thailand has a massive income disparity. Obviously, this ban is not meant for those who have homes or private residences [i.e., those with money]. Now, we cannot sell, so we cannot pay our suppliers in Australia, South America or Europe. [The effects of this ban] go back to the source.”
On the local level, many bar and small business owners now wonder if they will be able to pay their own employees, let alone their partners overseas.
“Imagine this: you were ordered to do nothing, sell nothing, receive no income and still your expenses stay the same. Not to mention [paying] the team and the employees,” says Niks Anuman-Rajadhon, founder of Teens of Thailand
and Asia Today
. “This hit us pretty hard.”
Jakob Rasmussen, co-founder of craft beer importing and distributing company Hopsession
, as well as craft beer bar Mikkeller
, says he was faced with a no-win scenario: continue paying employees as cash flow dries up, putting the business on tenuous ground, or lay them off to keep the business afloat while the industry craters around them, with the intention of bringing them back when it stabilizes.
“We decided to shut down all sales (both Hopsession and Mikkeller) and send staff home, and the government is giving them reduced pay right now [through Social Security],” he says.
“I would rather have a scenario where we are still here and can pay salaries when this is over than we have [had] to close. The bar/restaurant business is extremely capital intensive, and no one has ever considered a month with no revenue as a possibility... The government needs to take responsibility for the unemployment it creates."
OPERATING IN A GRAY AREA
When bars and restaurants were ordered to close, many employed creative solutions to generate revenue
. Craft beer bars began to offer draft beer in one- or two-liter glass bottles for delivery
. Wine bars and distributors sold curated selections available by the box. Cocktail bars delivered ready-made mixes—just add your own alcohol, and you would have a bar-quality cocktail in hand at home. (The sale of pre-mixed cocktails, with alcohol taken out of its original container, is illegal in Thailand.)
To get the word out about these initiatives, however, they all had to bend, if not break, Thailand’s draconian advertising laws that prohibit the promotion of alcohol and the display of packaging. Anuman-Rajadhon admits he was recently censured for advertising alcohol on his bars’ social media feeds—and he might not be the only one in hot water. Both Wachtveitl and Rasmussen, meanwhile, note that this freeze in sales has laid bare other flaws in the current regulations.
“The 2-5pm [alcohol sales time] has always been pointless; it just hurts employment,” says Rasmussen. “In Thailand, rent is often a big part of your monthly expenses, and if we could sell from 2-5pm, we would be able to justify opening at 11am instead of 5pm and hire a handful of staff to run these shifts. I believe a smarter system would be to have different licenses. If you want to stay open until 4am, that’s fine, but you need a special license, which is more expensive, etc. Licenses here are also too cheap. It’s so easy and inexpensive to obtain a license to sell alcohol—it’s no wonder it can feel uncontrolled.”
Wachtveitl believes the strict sales times has had a greater effect on an even bigger industry in Thailand.
“Tourism, especially high-end tourism, has been in decline for some time. The roads from the airport, safety, language, service, price offerings—compared to other top resort destinations, the visuals and appeal have dropped over the years. You have to examine what that means,” he says.
“The whole experience needs to change. For example, if you want to bring Thai food to the next level and have wines to pair with it, you must make it easier to purchase [those wines].”
WAS THE BAN JUSTIFIED?
The unifying thread between craft beer, wine and cocktails, in this case, has been a lack of support from government programs for venues that specialize in alcohol. Not just in times of crisis, either.
“We managed to get compensation on rent from our landlord, but there are still expenses. Our businesses get no support,” says Rasmussen.
“Put it this way: I’m not surprised by what’s happening. Small businesses never get much support in Thailand,” says Wachtveitl.
“What support?” Anuman-Rajadhon asks rhetorically.
But not everyone opposes the ban on alcohol sales. In Saphan Kwai, one mom-and-pop shop owner, who requested her name not be published, said that she prefers not selling the lao khao and Singha and Chang beers she keeps in stock. “I’ve had many people asking if I sell beers, and when I say no, a few of them get moody,” she says. “I’m very firm when it comes to saying no. I’m against selling alcohol illegally. I actually like the ban, because I don’t like seeing people get drunk.”
With small businesses facing tough staffing decisions at best, and even tougher decisions about their very existence at worst, many question whether the situation warranted such stiff measures.
“I think the ban might have been justified, but it says more about a lack of control than anything else,” says Rasmussen. “If the goal is to prevent people from gathering and doing ‘stupid’ things, I think it would be smarter to create clear and easy to follow rules, and then make sure the police enforce these rules, and also make clear the consequences for not following these rules.”
The fallout from these measures might have a lasting effect on the nightlife industry, too. “Many places will be forced to close, which will cause a lot of unemployment,” Rasmussen adds. “Hospitality employs more people compared to revenue/size than most other businesses, especially among untrained workers, who often have a hard time finding work elsewhere.”
When the authorities eventually lift the lockdown and rescind the ban on alcohol sales, Bangkok’s bar and small business owners will confront new regulations in a rapidly changing world. What that world will look like is a question that remains to be answered, but Wachtveitl believes there is hope for it. “Every businessperson in this country will look for opportunity in the crisis,” he says. “We’ve got to compete harder now.”