Bangkok’s soapy massage parlors reopened Wednesday, but not for foreigners, who are being denied service at the city’s major venues due to coronavirus prejudice.

Management at the major adult-service venues on Ratchadaphisek Road and Rama 9 Road said, at least for now, the baths and the young attendants working there were only for Thais, part of a health plan to also calls for service staff to wear face shields and masks, check-in customers on a government-controlled tracking app and dish out copious amounts of hand sanitizing gel.

Soapy massage parlors – a polite euphemism for commercial sex venues – are not the first Thai businesses to deny service to foreigners on coronavirus grounds, despite the fact that any foreigners currently in the country are as virus-free as the rest of the population and are likely long-term expats.

Wat Pho – the Temple of the Reclining Buddha – is still barring foreigners three weeks after its xenophobic policy was excoriated online. Transport Co. also banned foreign customers until June 15 and Srinakarin Dam National Park in Kanchanaburi only lifted its foreigner ban on Wednesday.

The coronavirus has not only shined an uncomfortable spotlight on Thailand’s systemic racism and xenophobia, but its sprawling sex industry as well.

Every Thai – from the local tuk-tuk driver to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha know about “soapies” and what goes on there. Yet despite the fact that generations of government and police bigwigs have been the massage parlors’ best clients, no one wants to talk about them publicly.

But the country’s 3 ½-month economic lockdown made that impossible. With the government releasing lists of businesses that could reopen every two weeks, officials were forced to talk about the brothels in the same breath they spoke of bars and other high-risk venues.

Spokespeple for the Center for Coovid-19 Situation Administration played out the farce with as straight of faces as was possible. But when it came time to actually reopen this week, authorities pulled out the same script they use when “inspecting” Pattaya: “There’s no prostitution here”.

Following a pre-opening meeting with Bangkok massage operators Wednesday, assistant national police chief Pol. Lt. Gen. Piya Uthayo told reporters that he had reviewed the safety standards to which they were expected to comply.

Then, with that same straight face, he said “no sex services would be allowed” and that the country’s anti-prostitution laws would be strictly enforced.

That must have iciited chuckles among the young women in slinky gowns as they filled up their tubs that afternoon. After all, men aren’t paying thousands of baht to go there for aa bubble bath.

It’s undeniable, however, that the “soapy experience” will not be the same, for either operators nor customers.

Parlor owners have had to pay for coronavirus tests for hundreds of sex workers and staff to open and will continue to have to test regularly to stay open. The government has made it clear that any business found to be spreading the virus will be liable for all medical expenses for anyone affected.

When it came time to actually reopen this week, authorities pulled out the same script they use when “inspecting” Pattaya: “There’s no prostitution here”.

They’ve also had to remove the glass from the “fishbowl”, the area where seated hostesses wait to be called upstairs, so as to provide better ventilation for the women, who wearing transparent face shields, but not masks.

For customers, tables have been separated and large groups of men will not be allowed to sit together. Group action upstairs also is no longer allowed. Only single customers can go for a “bath”.

The bar area also will no longer sell spirits, although beer and soft drinks are allowed.  

Lastly, massage clients will have to check-in with the government’s Thai Chana contact-tracing app or register in a written log. Public areas will be under constant CCTV surveillance and all customers will have to wear masks – except during “bath time” – and have their temperatures checked.

Finally, the parlors will be taking fewer customers, if only because each tub will have to be refilled with water and disinfectant and allowed to sit for 30 minutes between clients.