6 June 2024

If you haven’t had your COVID-19 jab yet, then your life in Thailand may be very different from those who have already been vaccinated. This is because of new “COVID-Free Setting” rules that bar unvaccinated people from accessing certain services.

From October 1, several businesses in strictly controlled zones reopened under tight COVID-Free Setting rules. Some gyms, for instance, have banned unvaccinated members from using their facilities.

“I know that without a vaccine, my life cannot return to normal,” said Kawin, who lives and works in Bangkok. Though nearly half of the Thai population has received the first shot and nearly a third have been double-jabbed, he has still not received a single dose. Millions of Thais are also in the same situation.

Kawin said confusion over the government’s free vaccine rollout nudged him to book paid Moderna shots, which are yet to arrive in Thailand.

However, he didn’t realize he would have to wait so long for the alternative vaccine.

“Given that I’ve already made my choice, I will stay put. I will also respect rules imposed by authorities and businesses,” he said. “If shops offer rapid antigen test kits [ATK], I will be willing to pay and get tested right away.”

The Government Pharmaceutical Organisation initially said it would procure 1.9 million Moderna jabs for rollout in October, but then pushed back the deadline to November.

What is a COVID-Free Setting?

According to the Disease Control Department, a Covid-Free Setting comprises the following three components.

COVID-Free Environment: All business premises must be properly ventilated and sanitized while imposing correct social-distancing measures. In restaurants, for example, only 75 percent of space can be occupied in open-air zones and only 50 percent in air-conditioned dining rooms.

To ensure social distancing, each customer must have a space of 4 meters of their own, and if the space is tight, then restaurants must erect partitions.

COVID-Free Personnel: Business owners and staff must be fully inoculated and take ATK tests once a week.

COVID-Free Customers: Customers must either prove they have had both their jabs or show proof they have recently recovered from COVID-19 or tested negative.

So far, these rules are mandatory for only certain types of businesses. For others, they merely offer a guide to encourage better control of the highly contagious virus.

The rules are mandatory for tattoo parlors and sporting events, meaning that under the law you can only attend a sporting event or get tattooed in a parlor if you have been vaccinated, or recently recovered from COVID or tested negative.

Why herd immunity could be an impossible goal for Thailand

With some 56 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered so far, Thailand has made considerable progress in protecting its population of 70 million. However, Thais should take note that a high vaccination rate does not guarantee herd immunity – as shown by the recent spike in infections overseas.

No vaccine, no entry?

Kawin believes businesses will not be too strict about applying COVID-Free Setting rules, especially in the current economic downturn. However, he is willing to play by rules that are imposed. For example, if an eatery won’t let him dine-in, he would be happy to take the food home.

“I expect flexibility from most businesses,” he said. “Checking proof of COVID-19 jabs or tests is possible and practical only for airline passengers.”

Regardless of the rules applied by businesses or authorities, Kawin has decided not to return to his hometown in the Northeast for now. Nor is he using his fitness center or hanging out with his friends. He says this is the least he can do to help Thailand control the contagion.

“My self-restraint will end as soon as I get my first shot,” he said. “But I have no idea when Moderna will arrive in Thailand.”

For the time being, Kawin avoids crowds where possible and keeps his guard up for protection.

How’s life for the double-jabbed?

Fellow Bangkokian Juthamas has received both her jabs and is quite confident about going out. In fact, she was happy to browsing around two of Bangkok’s biggest shopping malls last weekend.

Juthamas has also returned to her old eating habits, hopping between cafes and restaurants between visits to boutiques – all in airconditioned comfort. Like many Bangkok residents, she missed going out and is now getting used to the return of normal city life.

“Despite heading out early in the morning, I waited in line for more than an hour to be seated in a restaurant. The taxi queue outside was also very long,” she said.

For some people at least, the lifestyle they enjoyed in pre-COVID times is slowly returning.

How strictly is COVID-Free Setting applied?

Though authorities are pushing the COVID-Free Setting system, Bangkokians have barely noticed any extra restrictions on entering malls, supermarkets, or restaurants. Most are just checking their temperature at the entrance, as usual.

“I don’t even need to check-in with the ThaiChana app,” admits Juthamas.

When she sat at a restaurant table with two companions recently, staff did not ask to see proof of their vaccination, she added.

However, she admits this leniency is a worrisome sign that Thailand may be hit by another serious outbreak soon. But in the meantime, life for her and others goes on.

“I ate out twice last weekend because I am worried a lockdown may be reimposed in the near future,” she said.

Juthamas is among many Bangkokians willing to accept lower disease controls as life opens up. For instance, when the first eatery she visited last weekend insisted that diners sit at separate tables, she simply moved on to a less strict eatery.

What about ‘Universal Protection’?

The Public Health Ministry has been pushing not just COVID-Free Settings but also “Universal Protection”. This concept covers guidelines on what people should do to avoid COVID risk. For instance, they should only leave home when necessary, should maintain a distance of one meter from others at all times, and wash their hands frequently. People are also advised to wear two masks – a fabric mask above a surgical one – while avoiding sharing personal items and eating cooked food only.

COVID-19 has taken a huge toll on Thailand this year, driven by the emergence of deadly variants like Alpha and Delta. From April 1 to October 4, the virus has infected 1.6 million people in Thailand – 694,609 people in Greater Bangkok alone – and caused 17,017 deaths.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk