This morning, June 3rd, 2022, saw a notable “flip flop”, even for Thailand where decisions often change quickly.
First, for reference, a flip flop is a sudden reversal of a decision, sometimes even when mulled or announced for weeks prior.
Yesterday, June 2nd, the Phuket Governor announced a new order which contained a pilot decision in which masks could be removed on beaches, parks, and outdoor sports stadiums if more than two meters from someone else. On paper, especially to someone from western countries where mask mandates have been gone for months, this sounds reasonable.
However, by this morning, June 3rd, less than a day, the order was cancelled by the governor and mask mandates remained, even at the beach. The reaction from our English speaking audience was swift and almost universally negative on social media. To be fair, the mandate doesn’t seem to bother most of our Thai staff or many Thai readers. But it certainly bothers potential tourists from many countries, which is a huge focus for Thailand to recover the tourism industry. It also bothers many expats, at least reading our emails and social media comments.
It’s unclear what led to this quick reversal, although many people speculated possible Central government influence from the Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration, or CCSA, which runs the response for Covid-19 for the Kingdom.
Thailand has had a mask mandate, covered in one form or another under the emergency decree, since basically Covid19 began. This is not unusual as many countries have had this. What is unusual is Thailand still has a total outdoor mandate, even if one is completely alone driving their motorbike or walking on a beach. And, yes, one CAN, if police choose to do so, be charged for not wearing a mask under the emergency decree rules in place, currently extended to the end of July, 2022.
Most other countries have dropped outdoor mask mandates, some for well over a year. We aren’t going to get into a scientific argument on this editorial about masks and effectiveness outside, only note that most countries, including some of Thailand’s neighbors like Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and Cambodia, have dropped outdoor mandates.
For months now, Thailand has been back and forth on potentially ending the mask mandate, at the very least outdoors in places like parks and beaches or tourism areas.
In the middle of last month, May 2022, the Thai Ministry of Public Health announced they were looking at canceling mask mandates, at least outdoors and non crowded areas, or riding a vehicle alone, etc. The feedback, especially from foreigners and potential tourists, was immediate and positive.
However, only a few days later, seemingly from back and forth debates behind the scenes with Thai officials with different opinions, this proposal changed to “only certain areas and zones.”
Then, only a few days later, both Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said they disagreed with the proposal and people should wear masks at all times except when at their private homes, essentially killing the proposal for now.
This lead to the Phuket Governor seemingly trying to make his own easing outside and being shut down yesterday.
Notably, the tourism, hospitality, and business sector and even Bangkok’s new governor have said the mandate should be eased, at least outdoors and in tourism areas, but with top officials reluctant to even slightly ease the mandate, this seems unlikely for now. Of course, enforcement of the mandate in reality is low, especially on islands and tourism areas like Pattaya. Indeed, many people have completely stopped wearing masks except at 7-11, especially foreign tourists, in these areas.
However, to a foreign tourist who may not know this fact or do research, all they may see is the country still has an outdoor mandate and may as a result choose a different holiday destination. Of course, the back and forth flip flopping won’t help anyone.
Now, of course, even if the mandate was lifted one could still wear a mask if they chose. I support everyone’s choice to do so and am a fan of properly fitted, non-cloth masks for crowded areas that lack ventilation, with the mask being regularly cleaned and changed. But, unfortunately, that isn’t what is happening currently and nearly all mask wearing has become compliance or theater, at least in Pattaya, such as alone on a motorbike, the beach, or putting on to go through the entrance of a busy bar or restaurant and then immediately take off.
Until the decision makers can come together and come up with a reasonable middle-ground policy, at least for now, tourism will continue to suffer and people will continue to be confused.