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Coronavirus

Thailand to close malls early as COVID surges after Songkran

New restrictions starting Sunday target sectors beyond nightlife

A new field hospital in Bangkok on April 12: Thailand is fighting a fresh wave of COVID-19 infections.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thailand's government on Friday decided to expand coronavirus restrictions in Bangkok and elsewhere, targeting shopping malls and convenience stores in the hope of halting an infection surge.

The attempt to discourage public movement, on top of existing nightlife curbs and other measures, comes as confirmed cases rise sharply following the weeklong Thai new year holidays, Songkran.

New cases jumped from 559 on April 9 to 965 on Tuesday -- the official start of Songkran -- before hitting a record 1,582 on Friday.

The alarming numbers prompted the authorities to impose new rules for two weeks, starting Sunday after midnight. Shopping malls will be obliged to shorten their regular operating times by one hour, to 9:00 p.m. Convenience stores in high-risk areas will have to limit their hours to 4:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., rather than staying open round the clock. And gatherings of more than 50 people will be banned.

Still, officials stopped short of a full-fledged curfew.

"We don't want impose a curfew as we don't want to disrupt business operations that would hurt the economy," said Dr. Taweesilp Visanuyothin, spokesperson for the Center for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), the government entity in charge of COVID-related policy. "However, we choose to restrict some activities at some places to curb the spread of the virus."

The new restrictions were decided in a CCSA brainstorming session on Friday chaired by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. In addition, all nightlife venues -- including clubs, pubs, karaoke bars, bathing facilities and other spots -- that were ordered to remain closed since April 9 will have to stay shut for the remaining two weeks of April.

The CCSA also designated 18 provinces as "red zones," or areas requiring maximum control. These zones include Bangkok, other provinces surrounding the capital and famous tourist destinations such as Chiangmai, Khon Kaen, Phuket, Chonburi and Hua Hin.

The other 59 provinces, where new cases remain low, are classified as "orange zones" with more relaxed restrictions -- leaving convenience stores free to stay open 24 hours. But all pubs and nightlife venues are to remain closed, and the shorter mall hours apply nationwide.

When possible, working from home is encouraged.

Businesses frustrated with the already ailing economy have been urging the government to open up the country more, yet the health crisis is spurring more stringent rules.

Thailand has done well in controlling the pandemic, keeping the death toll at 98 out of 39,038 total cases. But many are blaming the latest wave of infections on luxury nightclubs in the heart of Bangkok. The prevailing view is that elite or middle-class customers visited the clubs, carelessly drinking and partying in crowds before spreading the virus to other provinces while visiting their hometowns over Songkran.

Although the government had canceled all public events and prohibited the traditional Songkran water splashing celebrations, the increasing case count suggests this may not have been enough.

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