As much of the western world begins to emerge from lockdowns and ease pandemic restrictions, Thailand finds itself going back to square one.
The latest surge in Covid-19 infections has more than doubled Thailand’s total cases since last March. While it’s less than what much of the world has experienced, a delayed vaccination campaign, mired by a lack of transparency, and the arrival of more transmissible strains of the virus leave the country with few options but severe restrictions to limit the spread of the disease.
The hospitality and food service industries have often borne the brunt of these restrictions.
Since Songkran, when officials eschewed domestic travel bans in favor of keeping the economy open, public health measures aimed at reducing the spread of Covid-19 have sparked controversy and yielded mixed results.
Public parks were closed while shopping malls, restaurants, and food courts could operate as normal but with shorter hours, leaving Bangkok residents scratching their heads, as the orders contradict top scientists
who say the risk of outdoor transmission of Covid-19 is very low.
Independent restaurants and bars have remained in limbo all the while.
Official orders have limited operating hours and banned the sale of alcohol. Now, dining-in is not allowed at restaurants in six provinces, including Bangkok. This follows a year-plus of pandemic restrictions that have battered the hospitality and food service industries.
Many restaurateurs are fed up with heavy-handed measures and unclear guidelines.
Chirayu Na Ranong, owner of Chu
, says he has been in survival mode since early last year, faced with mounting rent and declining revenue. Recently, an employee tested positive for Covid-19. He says he took the responsibility to close restaurants, sanitize them, and get staff members tested, despite the lack of available tests in Bangkok. He says it was almost impossible to get the testing costs covered by social security.
“I wouldn’t mind a lockdown if it meant we would get some assistance financially,” he says. “Why is it that restaurants are the ones [dealing with] this shit?”
Calls for an official lockdown, which would guarantee social security compensation for workers, have echoed across the industry. But restaurant owners also argue that a total shutdown won’t work for businesses in the long run, as rising food costs, rent, delivery fees, and drained cash reserves have left many reeling.
No stranger to the limelight, chef Thitid “Ton” Tassanakajohn recently went on public television to urge government officials not to impose strict measures on restaurants. He also spoke to a frustration many people living in Thailand have felt.
“Delivery won’t save us this time,” he said. “We need vaccines.”
Although delivery is the most viable revenue-generating option for restaurants at the moment, it comes at a hefty price. According to the Bangkok Post
, “Restaurants, large and small, have turned to home delivery services to sell their food online but the high fees charged by those services—as much as 35 percent of the bill—are eating away at their already low profits.”
In the same article, author Penchan Charoensuthipan notes that the Thai cabinet has approved regulatory measures on food and delivery services that include price controls, but these do not come into effect until July 4.
As many restaurateurs explained to us, before the pandemic, the fees charged by delivery providers were more manageable, as it was easier to get visibility on the apps. When thousands of restaurants joined the platforms during the lockdown in April last year, their visibility decreased, leaving advertisement as the only way to regain it.
With such high demand now, many delivery services like Grab and Lineman can’t supply enough drivers, leading to a heavier workload, canceled orders, and less trust. A new outbreak in Klong Toey, where many delivery drivers reside, is adding to the chaos.
At the same time, many bars and restaurants continue to pay full rent, as landlords, who likewise do not receive government assistance, refuse to budge. Despite shortened operating hours and a ban on dining-in, Chirayu says he is still paying full rent at Chu, and if the dine-in ban “lasts much longer, we will have to close Chu [in Asoke], because [the landlords] won’t reduce rent.”
Bars, meanwhile, have faced stiff restrictions since early last year. Changing guidelines, curfews, and an on-again, off-again prohibition of alcohol sales have left behind a string of closures, damaging an industry that contributes more than B171 billion (US$5.5 billion) a year to the economy, according to an article published by insurance company Pacific Prime
Bars have had to improvise to stay afloat, sometimes to such an extent that they barely resemble the businesses they used to be. Teens of Thailand
, for one, is now selling durian.
There could be light at the end of the tunnel, however, thanks to one of the most vocal calls for action yet proposed by the newly formed Kla Party, headed by former Democract Party deputy leader Korn Chatikavanij.
The local food blogging community has likewise taken it upon themselves to assist venues. Kin-Kin and even Time Out Bangkok
have asked any place that offers delivery to tag them on Instagram for a reshare to help spread awareness, and to encourage consumers to buy directly from restaurants.
The Restaurant Business Association told the Bangkok Post
that the latest outbreak is expected to cost as many as 200,000 jobs. In the wake of the new measurements, restaurants have started permanently shutting their doors, most recently Tatsumi
and Sundays in Thonglor
. F&B professionals believe immediate action is necessary to stem the bleeding.
“How do you make people care when there’s no support coming from anywhere?” says the owner of a Bangkok bar.
“Bangkok prides itself as this glorious food city, a culinary mecca, but we have a problem of not loving the industry in its entirety. If you love what this city brings to the world, all the inspiring Netflix shows and beauty, people need to show up. There needs to be a call to action.”
This story has been edited to remove a quote the subject intended to be off the record. We apologize for the mistake.