23 May 2024

Owners of traditional Thai massage parlours in Germany are cautiously preparing for life in the “new normal” now that the lockdown has been relaxed.

Chutima Altheim, owner of Nalin Massage and Spa in Darmstadt, near Frankfurt, decided against rushing to reopen after restrictions on massage operators were lifted in early May.’“We were given just a couple of days’ notice. We were told on a weekend that we could open the following Monday, but our hygiene measures were not in place … So I waited for another week to reopen,” she recalled.

Chutima used that extra week to study the new hygiene rules she has to follow and also stock up on the necessary equipment. But as her customers returned, she quickly realised that the massage experience for clients and staff had changed dramatically.

Customers now have to make an appointment; no walk-ins are allowed. On entering the premises, they must use the spray or gel disinfectant provided, before filling in a questionnaire with their details, including health conditions, as well as the time of their arrival and departure.

Clients must wear a face mask throughout the massage, while therapists are not allowed to give facial treatments. Customers can also forget about that customary cup of tea at the end of the massage. As soon as their treatment is completed, they must leave.

The masseurs also have to wear a mask at all times, changing it each time they treat a new client, and cleansing their hands before and after.

Restrictions are especially tight in Bayern and Baden-Wuerttemberg, where masseurs are required to don gloves when they give treatments.

Customers may question whether this new normal is robbing them of the relaxing experience Thai massage used to offer, while for owners like Chutima, it means more work, time and cost.

Sheets and towels must be changed after each session. Items that can be re-used must be washed in hot water. Parlours are also required to disinfect the massage area at least twice daily, though Chutima prefers to do it after every session.

She said this costs her another 10-15 minutes per client, and since she gets weary after wearing a mask during the massage, she reserves another 30 minutes to rest and refresh ahead of the next session.

All this means that the number of clients she can treat daily has dropped from 10 before the pandemic to just five under the “new normal”. More work, less income, but higher costs spells tough times for Chutima.

“This [new normal] is affecting my business. There is definitely going to be less income; we are talking about less than half of what I usually make. But I want to reopen to remain relevant in the business.”

After being closed for nearly eight weeks, she fears her customers will get used to going without a massage or opt for other parlours if she keeps her doors shut.

Think Thailand, think massage
In Germany, Thailand is known first for its food and second for its massage, with thousands of Thai massage shops and freelance masseurs operating in the country.

Thousands of Thai women in Germany work as masseurs or own a massage parlour. For many, it provides a living as well as money to send back to their families in Thailand.

Yet massage businesses were among the hardest hit by the pandemic, after the government ordered them to shut on March 22.

Germany has a federal system, with each state given a say in public health policies. Each set its own date and measures for the reopening of Thai massage parlours, which Germany designates as wellness rather than medical services.

Nitnipa Exner of TMC Thaimassage in Gernsheim, near Frankfurt, is also experiencing hardship, but said that with no cure or vaccine for the virus, she was happy to have fewer customers. “Currently I only take appointments from regular customers I know well.”

Nitnipa reopened her shop on May 20 and reports the response from customers has so far been good, despite the “new normal”.

Heike Gruebel, 58, a regular client, said she was looking forward to her next session.

“For me it is a relief to be able to have massages again,” she beamed. “Having to work from home in front of the PC all day is taking a toll on me,” said Gruebel, pointing to the aches in her neck and back.

Nitnipa added that her massage shop already had a good reputation for cleanliness. Going the extra mile to ensure pristine hygiene generates trust among customers. “They feel confident in you and want to come back,” she said.

Phatchadaporn Sallach of Nawarat Thai Masssage in Lippstadt, in North Rhein-Westphalia where parlours have been allowed to open since May 11, said she was taking things slowly and had set May 26 as her reopening date.

“I feel I am not ready yet. There is so much to prepare, purchase and adjust. And I would rather get it right, than rush to open only to find that we have got it wrong and be ordered to close down again,” said Phatchadaporn.

Many items she needs before reopening are now tough to find. And once found, they take longer than usual to deliver. Worse still, prices of items like alcohol sanitiser and dispensers, and single-use masks have skyrocketed.

Phatchadaporn has also decided run the parlour alone for the first few weeks, so she can get the hang of the new measures and explain them to her staff when they return.

“Fortunately, many of them understand [the need for such caution]. In fact, they are concerned, because the job requires very close contact with customers. They don’t mind waiting a little longer to get back to work,” she said.
Fewer people in the shop also means less exposure to germs, she added. “Caution is the key.”

‘Many parlours will close’
All three owners agree that plenty of Germany’s Thai massage parlours will go out of business by the end of the year.
“Particularly those that don’t have a proper business plan and rely heavily on daily cash flow,” said Nitnipa.

Although the German government is helping businesses with their rent and employee costs via programmes such as “SofortHilfe” (Immediate relief) and “Kurzarbeitergeld” (Short-time allowance), the aid comes with strings attached.

“Those who apply for and receive such assistance are thoroughly checked by the tax and revenue office. If they spot any financial misconduct, they ask for retroactive payment of tax,” said Nitnipa. “Nothing comes for free in this world.”

By ThaiPBS World’s General Desk