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Thailand enacts shutdowns to curb spread of coronavirus

BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand's government has enacted a raft of measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus, including postponing the country's biggest annual holiday and shutting down schools.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's Cabinet approved the measures at a meeting where all attendees practiced social distancing by wearing face masks and sitting 1 meter apart, as recommended by health experts.

The plan to postpone Songkran — an annual three-day holiday in mid-April marking the traditional Thai New Year — is one of a series of measures aimed at discouraging the gathering and movement of large numbers of people. Millions of Thais normally travel from Bangkok and other cities where they work to their hometowns to celebrate Songkran. The holiday will be rescheduled at a later date to be decided.

Government-run educational institutions through university level will be closed for two weeks starting Wednesday, initially in Bangkok and adjoining suburban provinces.

Gathering places such as bars, karaoke parlors, movie theaters, gymnasiums, boxing stadiums and other sports venues will be subject to closures as ordered by provincial governors. Such venues in Bangkok will be also be closed for two weeks beginning Wednesday.

The closing of restaurants and malls in Bangkok will be at the discretion of its governor. Meanwhile, restaurants are required to implement strict disinfection procedures and health safety measures. Several in Bangkok have voluntarily cut out table service and will only do takeout and delivery.

The governors of two provinces, Buriram in the northeast and Uthai Thani in the north, have already used their authority to regulate travelers with health checks and ban gatherings of more than 50 people.

While the new coronavirus can be deadly, particularly for the elderly and people with other health problems, for most people it causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. Some feel no symptoms at all and the vast majority of people recover.

Speaking at a news conference after the weekly Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Prayuth said Thailand remains opens to foreign visitors, although strict conditions are attached. All arriving foreigners must have health certificates issued no more than three days before boarding along with health insurance, and must download tracking applications developed by the government to keep track of them and their health once they arrive in Thailand.

All people arriving from China, Hong Kong, Macao, South Korea, Iran and Italy are required to self-isolate for 14 days after arrival.

Several commercial sectors in Thailand are suffering from the COVID-19 outbreak, with the huge tourism sector taking a major blow.

The tourism industry in Thailand accounted for 15.5% of total employment — 5,834,000 jobs — in 2017, according to a report issued last year by Bangkok Bank.

Among the measures launched by the government to bring financial relief to people and businesses suffering financially is a 3% reduction in the price of public utilities including water and electricity.

The government also announced plans to create temporary six-month jobs, but gave no details.

"Under the current circumstances, prevention and protection measures against COVID-19 are the first priority of Thailand," Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam said Monday when he announced many of the measures proposed to fight the outbreak.

“The effects on the economy, tourism, exports and trade come second," he said. "We don't know yet how serious this battle will be; we are putting in everything to deal with it and then later we will come up with an economic rehabilitation plan.”

Thailand, the first country outside China to confirm a case of the coronavirus, reported 30 new cases on Tuesday, bringing the country's total to 177.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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