Bars throughout Thonglor, epicenter of infections, skirt shutdown order

Photo: Coconuts
Photo: Coconuts

Around tables they sat drinking and sharing food last night, steps away from locations where dozens are believed to have been infected with COVID-19 in one of the capital city’s biggest outbreak clusters.

A survey of Bangkok’s trendy Thonglor district on the first Friday night since its bars and nightlife venues were ordered shut found customers patronizing numerous venues either defying the order or operating through a loophole.

The Thonglor Police Department earlier Friday said it was enforcing the order but for one giant exception: If a bar happens to sell food, then it’s fine. 

“We’re asking for cooperation,” said an officer answering the phone who declined to give his name. “But no bars and nightclubs dare risk to open at this time anyway or else they would get into trouble when a patron is found to have become infected with the virus.”

Bangkok orders malls, markets closed as 89 new COVID-19 cases reported

But dare, they have. A day earlier on Thursday, several bars were seen with patrons at stools and tables.

Asked about specific bars that have remained open since the order came into effect Wednesday, the officer asked if they were “a bar-bar or a semi-bar and restaurant.”

“If it’s a restaurant too, then the venue can still open because the order only applies to bars and pubs,” he said.

That would seem an academic distinction when it’s not alcohol but proximity that has infected dozens in what has become one of the viral epicenters of Bangkok.

On Friday night, I counted at least 13 Izakaya-style Japanese bars open, with patrons seated together sharing snacks and beer towers. There were also at least three conventional bars openly flaunting the ban. One famous after-hours joint where carousing can stretch into the morning had its sign turned off but the doors open, and people seated inside.

Asked if they were supposed to be open, an employee at one recently opened rooftop bar said with a grin, “Supposed to close!”

As I was leaving, two cops emerged from the elevator.

“Are you open?” one called out before instructing it to close. One of the officers told me they had ordered “many, many” venues to close Friday night.

Patrons at a Thonglor bar late Thursday afternoon.
Patrons at a Thonglor bar late Thursday afternoon.

Indeed most restaurants were open as well, thought with small crowds of diners. Most well-known venues, and all of those which have experienced virus scares, were closed. 

All venues at 72 Courtyard – including Beer Belly, Beam, Evil Man Blues and Carbar – were closed, as was The Commons, The Iron Fairies, 12×12 and more.

It’s not the first “ban” not to be taken seriously. Observers know the regular cycle of announcements banning this and that which is a kind of static tuned out by many. But where those have concerned inconveniences such as illegal parking or the fundamental rule of law; few have seemed as critical as the current health threat posed by the global coronavirus pandemic.

By noon on Saturday, City Hall had ordered a much broader ban and asked the public to report any place violating it.

The authorities in  several red-light districts did seem to take matters seriously.

In two streets that are magnets for foreign sexpats and tourists, everything appeared dark. Everything appeared closed in Soi Cowboy as well as Soi Nana, aka Soi Sukhumvit 4, a place that has historically seemed impervious to whatever calamity unfolds outside.

Additional reporting Chayanit Itthipongmaetee

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