Phnom Penh’s residents have wasted little time getting back to business as usual after municipal authorities announced the lifting of the lockdown for people in the city’s yellow zones. Smaller areas with high infection rates will continue to face travel restrictions, though, with one social researcher warning that further outbreaks could erupt at any time.
Phorn Da, a 22-year-old businessman who runs a decoration shop, reopened his store today for the first time in 21 days.
“I have just opened my shop this morning, and I’m happy that they have allowed me to open my business normally,” he said.
Mr. Da, whose business is based in Dangkor commune, said that the lockdown had taken a heavy toll on his livelihood.
“I didn’t have an income during the lockdown, and I have to pay rent as well as my staff’s salary,” he said. He added that his rent was $400 a month, as well as about $3,000 for his 10 employees and an outstanding bank debt.
While Mr. Da welcomes the government’s decision, he is worried about having to endure another outbreak.
“If they lock us down again, my business will be bankrupt,” he said.
Not every business is free to reopen their doors. Those living in red zones and dark yellow zones in some areas of 11 communes in Prampi Makara, Tuol Kork, Meanchey, Russei Keo, Pur Senchey, and Chbar Ampov districts will still face lockdown restrictions.
Touch Rong, 42, a grocery vendor, welcomed the government’s decision.
“I have not been seriously affected because my grocery is still running, but I am happy that authorities allowed people to travel [in yellow zones], and I can easily transport goods and vegetables,” he said.
“I can’t say whether COVID-19 will erupt again because I see the number of people infected with the virus keeps increasing, and I am still afraid of infection,” he said.
Speaking at this morning’s press conference, Phnom Penh deputy governor Keut Chhe called on people in red and dark yellow zones to be patient.
“In yellow zones people can travel more than before, but it does not mean that people can go back to what was normal before the 20 February event — they have to follow some instructions,” he said, referring to the date of Cambodia’s latest COVID-19 outbreak.
He said that people can travel into Phnom Penh without a mandatory 14-day quarantine — for those who are not coming from places with a high risk of COVID-19, at least.
“People can now travel into the capital because we have stopped setting up barriers, but you have to follow the instructions of the Phnom Penh authorities,” Mr. Chhe said.
“It does mean if we know you are coming from a red zone, we will come to take a sample from you [for testing] and you will have to quarantine,” he said. “But if you are coming from safe areas, we don’t need to take your sample, and you don’t have to quarantine.”
He added that Phnom Penh residents living in yellow zones can travel to the provinces, but they have to follow the instructions of local authorities.
Hong Vannak, a business researcher at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said that the lifting of the lockdown would raise people’s incomes.
“I think it will help and restore the livelihoods of people living in yellow zones,” Mr. Vannak said.. He added that the 21 days of lockdown had affected some people’s incomes and businesses, but maintained that lives were more important than the economy.
However, Mr. Vannak warned of potential increased viral transmission following the lifting of the lockdown if the public did not follow Health Ministry measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Government decided to lock down Phnom Penh and Takmao city for 14 days from April 15, but later extended one more week to May 5 due to the high number of infections. And although people from the provinces can now enter Phnom Penh, they cannot cross through dark yellow or red zones. A curfew preventing people from leaving their homes between 8pm and 5am is still in effect.
On Wednesday Prime Minister Hun Sen released a voice recording on his Facebook which ordered provincial governors to cancel quarantine measures for people travelling to the provinces. The order came after some provinces issued a mandatory 14-day quarantine for people entering their province.
“This is like we are establishing a state within the state, it is like [we are] dividing Cambodia into 25 countries,” he said. “It will disrupt the livelihoods of the people and kill the economy. Therefore, that decision must be changed immediately to support the socio-economic livelihood of the people.”
The prime minister added that people suspected of having COVID-19 would still face quarantine.
In his decision to lift the lockdown, the prime minister had authorized provincial authorities to put in place their own measures to control the virus transmission. In response, Prey Veng and Tbong Khmum provinces had both planned to put mandatory 14-day quarantines in place — a move they are now backing away from.
Tbong Khmum provincial governor Cheam Chansophoan said that the province will follow the prime minister’s orders.
“In fact, I just posted a Facebook status to alert people not to flock into the province too much, and we have not issued any official decision [about a mandatory quarantine] yet,” he said, adding that people who wished to come to Tbong Khmum would not be banned.
“However, we will do a rapid test in case they are suspected of the virus,” Chansophoan said. “We need to tighten up at the local level; the village and commune authorities will patrol the villages to find the newcomers, and we will take health measures such as measuring their temperature.” He said that the province has so far recorded 51 cases of COVID-19.
On Thursday the Ministry of Health said that it had found 650 new cases related to the February 20 outbreak. The overall case count has risen to 17,621 cases since the start of the pandemic in early 2020. Since then, 114 people have died.
(Additional reporting by Sorn Sarath)