BANGKOK — The restaurant industry was barely making a recovery from the semi-lockdown imposed in early 2020 amid the coronavirus outbreak. It may have to suffer again.
Restaurant operators interviewed for this story say they fear a new round of confusing restrictions recently ordered by the government will push their businesses toward bankruptcy, as they are forced to take fewer customers, reduce dine-in hours, and comply with strict health measures.
“One restaurant owner told me they can’t hold on to the situation beyond three months from now, and it’s better to simply shut down the place,” President of Thai Restaurants Association Thaniwan Koonmongkon said by phone.
The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration said earlier today that dining in restaurants will be banned from 7pm to 6am, starting on Tuesday. But PM Prayut Chan-o-cha hours later announced yet another regulation, one that would only prohibit dine-in services from 9pm to 6am.
BREAKING: PM Prayut Chan-o-cha says he has repealed the Bangkok City Hall’s order to ban dining in restaurants from 7pm to 6am. Prayut said dine-in services will be banned from 9pm to 6am instead. #Thailand #KE #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/kiuJLaSEU4
— Khaosod English (@KhaosodEnglish) January 4, 2021
It was Thaniwan’s association, which counts about 33,000 businesses as its members, that petitioned Prayut to consider moving the available hours from 7pm to 9pm.
“I have heard from the Thai Restaurants Association. They said that the impact would be severe,” Prayut said, explaining the abrupt change of policy.
Speaking to Khaosod English, Thaniwan also warned that the order issued today by the Bangkok City Hall is particularly dangerous to the dining industry, since Governors in many provinces may look to the capital for an example and follow suit with similar restrictions.
She said the damage could be innumerable.
“There will be no need for full employment. Waiters will be forced to have reduced working hours,” said Thaniwan, who also owns a restaurant inside the Parliament. “A lot of revenues have already been affected by the order to ban the sales of alcohol for consumption at the venues.”
Suranand Vejjajiva, co-owner of Brainwake Cafe and Restaurant, said that things over the past few days have been confusing at best.
“On Friday, we thought they were telling us to only allow delivery services and then a later announcement said you can dine in,” Suranand said by phone. “What we are not happy about is that the communication is confusing.”
He also said, “Say, from 100 seats, the number of seats have been reduced by 40 to 60. This is necessary measures to protect the health of the public. There may even be a need to shut down restaurants for dine-in. We understand the situation and that it may become more severe.”
Suranand, who runs six restaurants under the same name, predicted that the rules would probably change again by late Monday. He was wrong – it took just an hour after the interview.
A report published in 2020 by Kasikorn Bank estimated the restaurant industry shrank by up to 10 percent that year, and many restaurants lost as much as 65 percent in revenues due to the coronavirus. Many observers fear the situation for 2021 may not be any less dire.
Panit Kannasoot, owner of Krua Khun Kung, a restaurant specializing in seafood, said customers have been staying away due to contradicting news about dining restrictions over the past few days. Krua Khun Kung has three branches in Bangkok.
“Since the news came out, customers disappeared. Many of our customers are family members who come together to eat,” she said by phone. “A customer called me yesterday and asked about the confusing government orders.”
The confusion is due to an abrupt order issued by the City Hall on Friday, which said that restaurants will be only allowed to offer takeaways. Officials later said the restriction will come into effect on Monday, and it was eventually dropped altogether.
All in all, Panit said, 80 percent of the diners were gone on Monday at one of the three restaurants she runs, despite safety measures introduced by all three branches. They include keeping tables two meters apart, and diners must maintain a distance of one and a half meter from each other.
Sorathep R. Steve, who owns Steve Cafe & Cuisine, a riverside restaurant near Rama VIII Bridge, said that while the new restrictions on dining hours have “significantly impacted” his business, he believes Prayut made the right decision to cancel the City Hall’s order, which would have been far more devastating if implemented.
“What the PM did created confidence that people can dine at restaurants,” Sorathep said.
Sorathep is taking no chance. Staff have to clean the menu every time a customer touches it. Both kitchen workers and those serving customers wear surgical gloves – a hefty extra cost of operation for the restaurants. Sorathep complains that the gloves are becoming scarce and the price has shot up.
“A box of 60 pairs used to cost around 400 baht. It’s now 70 to 80 baht more expensive,” he said. “The government should do something about it.”
Panit, the owner of Krua Khun Kung, also praised the Prime Minister for having quickly repealed the Bangkok Gov. order banning dine-in services from 7pm to 6am before it came into effect. She said extending it to 9pm makes sense.
“We hope their decisions will be in line with one another,” Panit said. “There should not be more confusion in the future.”
Sorathep said he hopes to wait out the storm in the meantime.
“I have confidence in the government,” the restaurateur said. “Hopefully by the end of the month they will be able to control the outbreak.”
Additional writing Teeranai Charuvastra