Top: a seafood vendor at Mahachai Market in Samut Sakhon on Dec. 20, 2020.
BANGKOK — With the New Year’s Eve just around the calendar corner, the sprawling Mahachai Market was supposed to be crowded with buyers looking to stock up seafood for the year-end celebrations. But vendor Boonjira Witsutiranon said the market is now a ghost town.
“There’s some shopkeepers here but no customers,” Boonjira, owner of Chananchai Seafood, said by phone. “In the 20 years I’ve opened shop, it’s the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Mahachai Market, located in the southwestern suburb of Bangkok, is at the heart of the new coronavirus outbreak, which already saw at least 800 cases linked to the bazaar. Vendors in and around the market saw a sharp drop in sales – a heavy blow in the already struggling economy – while a number of seafood restaurants also face suspicion from customers wary of the virus.
“We’re bearing the full brunt. Normally the market is filled with shoppers but now everyone is afraid to come,” Boonjira said. “We usually sell to Bangkokians, but during the New Year time, people come from all over to buy souvenirs like dried squid and fish.”
Officials traced the infections to an unnamed 67-year-old woman who owned a seafood business in a shrimp market adjacent to Mahachai, though they have yet to identify how she contracted the virus in the first place.
Boonjira said she personally knew the infected vendor. “We’re all quite spooked and paranoid right now,” she said of her neighbors in the market.
A Thai desserts vendor at Sod Dee stall also said she’s struggling to sell her lod chong and chao guay snacks due to lack of foot traffic. She said customers have told her that they don’t want to eat anything from Mahachai Market.
“There’s no people at all. It’s so quiet I’m about to give them away for free,” she said. “No one’s walking here, just vendors staring at each other’s faces.”
A Billion Baht Bust
The authorities have discouraged travels in and out of Samut Sakhon in a bid to curb the coronavirus. A curfew was also imposed from 10pm to 5am, and a number of businesses were told to shut down, including shopping malls.
As of Monday, all trains running between Wong Wian Yai station in Bangkok and Mahachai were suspended indefinitely, putting a stop to a flow of seafood shoppers.
Another seafood seller interviewed by Khaosod said her only hope is to get rid of the stock of food she had ordered in anticipation of the New Year shopping rush.
“Vendors are just buying each others’ stock at this point,” she said. “Everyone just wants to clear out their fish before closing up shop until the situation gets better.”
Impacts from the outbreak in Samut Sakhon have rippled out to nearby seafood markets as well, such as the Talay Thai Market, located 2 kilometers away. The Samut Sakhon Fishery Association closed the seafood section of the market starting Monday until Jan. 3, but the general goods market remains open, although at reduced hours.
“Some shops decided to close, but some continued to open. But even if they’re open, there’s almost no customers,” Wannapa Wetprasitsuk, a manager at Talay Thai Market, said by phone Monday.
She continued, “Many people keep calling in to ask if we have any infection. Even though the Mahachai market is a completely different venue, we need to show our responsibility to society and close down [the fishery section].”
The Samut Sakhon Chamber of Commerce estimated that the province’s seafood industry made about 400 million baht per day before the latest outbreak struck.
With so many businesses shut down as a result of the pandemic, the economic fallout can be as costly as 1 billion baht per day, chairwoman Amphai Harnkraiwilai told reporters.
‘Is Your Food Infected?’
The COVID-19 surge at the market also resulted in a seafood scare, emptying grilled cuttlefish street food stalls and seafood restaurants alike, both in Samut Sakhon and Bangkok. The capital reported two coronavirus cases associated with the Mahachai Market.
A number of restaurant owners said customers are paranoid not only about seafood – but what ethnicity their employees are.
“We’ve been getting endless calls since the last three days,” Surasit Supatarasuk of Kinkubkoy seafood shop in Samut Sakhon said by phone. “It’s all asking whether our employees have COVID. Then, they ask if we have migrant workers, which we do.”
“The next question is whether they went out and had any contact with others.”
Due to the virus panic that grips the province, Surasit said he had to close up shop indefinitely since Sunday – a big loss, since New Year season was usually the peak time for the restaurant – even though his shrimp are grown in-house.
“People are so scared that they think that anything fresh from Samut Sakhon carries COVID,” Surasit said.
The World Health Organization has said that there is no evidence COVID-19 can be transmitted via food, and any viruses that may have been in the food can be killed by cooking temperatures.
But science is often trumped by emotions, as seen in the case of Mae Klong Seafood in Bangkok’s western suburb. The restaurant’s owner said people kept asking her if the food comes from Mahachai and whether the dishes contained coronavirus.
“People think seafood all comes from the same place. They put us all in the same basket,” owner Umaporn Pattaanachot said. “I’ve been sourcing seafood for 13 years and never once bought from Mahachai.”
Umaporn said she already told potential customers that she sourced the ingredients from Samut Songkhram and Nakhon Si Thammarat, among several other provinces, but to no avail. Since the news broke, her customers have dropped by at least 50 percent, Umaporn said.
“Normally on Sundays we have a queue of 100 people. Yesterday, you could just walk in,” she said.
The scare is felt as far as the Chai Grilled Squid stall near the Giant Swing – nearly 40 kilometers away from Mahachai. Stall vendor Watcharin Nakapurana said she sources her seafood from Talay Thai market, and continues to do so in spite of anxiety from some buyers.
“Some customers are worried that the food has COVID, but I tell them that there’s no COVID from where I bought the seafood,” Watcharin said.