BANGKOK -- Thailand will ease some of its business lockdown measures from Sept. 1, allowing so-called "high-risk businesses" to reopen.
Out of 77 provinces in Thailand, 29 are currently under stringent business restrictions and a nighttime curfew to contain the spread of the delta-strain outbreaks. The measures were implemented in mid-July and were set to expire by the end of August.
The Center for the COVID-19 Situation Administration, the Thai government's special committee for coronavirus-related policies, decided on Friday to lift some of the lockdown measures, while keeping the rest, including the nighttime curfew from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.
Restaurants will reopen for dine-in services, but they will have to maintain a 50% capacity limit for air-conditioned restaurants. Open-air restaurants can serve up to 75% of their seating capacity. Shopping malls, hair salons, foot massage parlors and beauty clinics will also be allowed to reopen.
Parks and outdoor sports venues will reopen without spectators. Schools may reopen after receiving permission from related agencies. Public gatherings involving a maximum of 25 people can be held. People will also be allowed to travel between provinces.
Meanwhile, bars and pubs will remain closed, as will tutoring schools, movie theaters, spas, fitness centers and swimming pools.
The proposals are expected to be endorsed by the cabinet on Tuesday, unless the epidemic situation worsens discernibly ahead of its regular weekly meeting. Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha chairs the Center for the COVID-19 Situation Administration.
Thailand reported 18,702 confirmed cases on Friday. Infections plateaued at the 17,000-19,000 level this week, down from roughly 20,000 daily cases the previous week. The Thai government considers the situation to be improving, with the number of daily discharges exceeding infections, according to Pensom Lertsithichai, director of the news division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"The next goal that we are aiming to achieve is to gradually adapt to the new health measures, as we learn to better coexist with COVID-19 instead of focusing on eradicating the virus completely," said Pensom. "This paradigm shift is the rationale behind today's deliberation of newly adjusted public health measures," she added.
As part of a pilot project, the government will encourage restaurants and hair salons to operate in a "COVID-free setting", whereby staff and customers would be fully vaccinated or test negative for coronavirus. However, businesses will not have to meet these requirements when they reopen in September.
The administration in Bangkok also revealed a plan whereby customers who wish to use these "high-risk" services will eventually have to obtain a "green card" or a "yellow card." The green card is given to those who are fully vaccinated, while the yellow card is for those with a negative antigen test within the past seven days. The government did not elaborate on how people can obtain these cards, or how these facilities should check whether or not customers can enter their businesses.
The government said it would later expand the "COVID-free" pilot project to other "high-risk" businesses beyond restaurants and hair salons.
The easing is being interpreted as part of a government effort to encourage vaccination. As of August 19, just 8.2% of Thailand's population was fully vaccinated. The low proportion reflects the government's slow procurement of vaccines as well as people's skepticism toward the efficacy of Sinovac, the Chinese-made vaccine which has showed flawed protective capabilities against Asia's delta-variant epidemic.
Allowing vaccinated citizens access to these reopening facilities will provide an incentive for more people to get jabs.
Reopening businesses is a key to welcoming tourists back to Thailand. In June, Prayuth launched a plan to reopen the country for vaccinated visitors within 120 days, with the target date due in mid-October. In order to accommodate incoming tourists, Thailand needs to have its tourist attractions, including restaurants and shopping malls, operational again before they arrive.