Officials said a cluster of cases in Tonpheung district was traced to people who illegally entered the area, ignoring lockdown rules, according to the Vientiane Times, a state-run English-language newspaper.
The paper also reported that a district task force accused locals of illegally bringing foreigners into Laos from neighboring Myanmar and Thailand.
Laos’ borders have been officially closed since last year as part of the country’s efforts to stop Covid-19 from spreading. However, sources told CNN that couriers continued to ferry people illegally into the country.
One former travel agent said, though crossings are officially suspended, people were illegally transporting a small number of tourists and Thai casino employees from Thailand across the Mekong River into Laos.
The agent, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive and illegal activity, said casino employees based in Thailand have stopped traveling to work and “won’t come back until the Covid situation improves.”
“They still want to keep their job at the casino,” the agent said.
Another source told CNN bars and nightclubs next to the casino appeared open as recently as January, and were playing music loud enough that it could be heard in Chiang Rai province, across the Mekong River in Thailand. Neither country had major Covid-19 outbreaks at the time. Entertainment venues in Laos were ordered to close on April 12, according to the US Embassy in Laos.
Zhao denies these allegations and says he is a legitimate investor who hopes to transform the GTSEZ into a major tourist destination, bringing jobs to one of the world’s poorest places. Zhao regularly appears alongside Laotian government officials in public relations material posted by the zone on WeChat, the Chinese social media platform.
The GTSEZ WeChat channel has also regularly reminded people inside the district to practice social distancing. Group gatherings are limited to five people, and any close contacts of cases are required to practice home isolation and get tested regularly.