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Coronavirus

Thailand reopens massage parlors as Singapore ends 'circuit breaker'

Southeast Asia relaxes restrictions, cautious about second coronavirus wave

Massage parlors in Thailand can now provide up to two hours of service at a time. Workers at a salon on Surawong Road, Bangkok wear face shields. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

BANGKOK -- Southeast Asian countries are continuing to reopen their economies after months of lockdown, while at the same time bracing for a second wave of coronavirus infections.

The Thai government moved into the third, of four, phase of its lockdown relaxation on Monday. Theaters and cinemas are now open for audiences of under 200 each. Massage salons can provide two hours of service at a time. Football pitches, basketball and volleyball courts, and boxing gyms will open for exercise and training only. Zoos will also open their doors again.

Some hygiene requirements were dropped for businesses that had resumed operations in the first two phases. For example, plastic partitions to keep diners apart will no longer be required in restaurations but tables must be set at least one meter apart. Hairdressers, who were previously only allowed to shampoo, cut and style, can now provide full services such as dyeing and perming, while they must close every two hours for cleaning.

Shopping malls can now open an hour later to 9 p.m.

Thailand reported 40 new cases in the seven days to Monday, bringing total confirmed cases to 3,082. All of the new cases were imported and now under a 14-day state quarantine. The government was able to move into the third phase of relaxation as there had been no local transmissions in over a week.

On Monday morning, few massage salons in the Silom area in central Bangkok were ready to open and some were still deep-cleaning. Whether consumers will return immediately also remains to be seen.

"I would rather wait and see no rise in local transmissions before I get my hard knots in my shoulders relaxed," said a Japanese expat.

The kingdom's first easing phase, which included reopening restaurants and barbers, began on May 3, while the second on May 17 resumed operations of shopping malls. The government has set an assessment period for at least two weeks between phases to ensure that infection rates do not spike on account of reopening.

The fourth phase will include reopening of boxing arenas and nightclubs, the sources of infections clusters in March.

The fears of a second wave of infections has risen after cities in Japan and South Korea experienced sudden spikes in cases following relaxation of lockdown measures. Yet, governments are keen to restart their economies to reduce hardship among its populations.

Despite a high number of daily reported cases, Singapore has ended two months of what it called a "circuit breaker" on Monday, allowing more businesses to resume operation from Tuesday. The city state is still reporting about 500 new COVID-19 patients on a daily basis, mostly among migrant workers who have been kept away from the rest of the population.

As Thailand reopens businesses, cinema-goers donning face masks queue for tickets. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

Low-risk businesses and those important for the economy such as finance and wholesale will reopen in the first phase. Nonessential retail outlets and dine-in restaurants will remain closed until the second phase, which could come as early as late June.

Controversially, Singapore is expected to resume in early June essential international travel to and from six Chinese cities -- Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing, Guangdong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang. This arrangement will be gradually expanded to the other areas in China.

"Both sides agreed to explore the increase of air links between the two countries," according to a joint statement issued Friday.

Singapore is also in discussions with South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Canada for similar travel arrangements.

Following the announcement, the Facebook page of state broadcaster Channel News Asia was flooded with mixed comments. One called it "good news," saying that "more bilateral channels like these need to open up fast so that we can save companies and save jobs."

On the other hand, another wrote: "[The] 2nd wave [is] more likely to strike," while someone else pointed out: "We can't go [to] shopping centers or restaurants for meals after June 1 but Chinese can enter Singapore? Which has a higher probability of risk?"

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Philippines allowed barbershops and salons to resume operations on a limited scale on June 7, after a near three-month shutdown. Those shops will be allowed to open at 30% of their capacity for haircuts and basic styling for a week, before expanding to 50%.

The easing in the insular country will come despite a recent spike in new coronavirus cases. Philippines reported over 1,000 new cases on May 29 for the first time since the pandemic hit the country.

The salons are required to keep at least a meter distance between chairs and conduct regular sanitation of equipment and tools. Salon employees are required to wear personal protective equipment including, but not limited to, face masks, face shields, eye glasses, gloves, hair caps, as well as closed shoes.

"We are confident that barbershops and salons will be able follow these strict yet reasonable guidelines in order to start bringing back jobs to an estimated 400,000 workers in over 35,000 shops," Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said.

Despite a continuing surge in coronavirus cases, Indonesia is also preparing to lift some of the large-scale restrictions imposed in cities like Jakarta. President Joko Widodo is keen to restart the economy after seeing the growth rate fall to its weakest in nearly two decades.

"We want to remain productive, but also safe from COVID-19," Widodo said last week.

As of Sunday, Indonesia had 26,473 confirmed cases of COVID-19, a nearly 20% increase from a week earlier. The archipelago continues to see, on average, 600 confirmed cases every day.

The president last week began preparations for the "new normal," which would require continued adoption of social distancing and other health protocols, such as mask-wearing and the provision of hand sanitizers by companies. Around 340,000 military personnel and police are being sent to four provinces, including Jakarta, as well as 25 cities and regencies outside these provinces to help local authorities enforce physical distancing and health protocols.

The health ministry has also issued a circular explaining health protocols that workplaces must adopt. These include office hygiene, reduced overtime hours and providing fruit high in vitamin C or vitamin C supplements for employees.

Meanwhile, the Indonesia Shopping Centre Association has claimed that some shopping malls in Jakarta will start to reopen on June 5, according to local media. Large-scale social distancing in the capital was slated to end on June 4, also according to local media.

However, Jakarta Gov. Anies Baswedan has refuted those claims, saying there was still potential to extend social restrictions if necessary. While the daily increases in confirmed COVID-19 cases are on the wane in Jakarta, it is still the country's hot spot, accounting for nearly 30% of the cases.

Additional reporting by Kentaro Iwamoto in Singapore, Cliff Venzon in Manila, and Shotaro Tani in Jakarta.

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