Concerned over COVID-19 and Costa Rica? You shouldn’t be and here’s why.
Costa Rica has been a popular vacation spot since the late 1980s and welcomed 3.139 million tourists in 2019 and 3.016 million the previous year. So it was understandable when the country announced its first case of COVID-19 on March 6 before many of its Latin American neighbors. Three days later, large gatherings were prohibited, and a state of emergency was declared on March 16 when the country registered 41 cases of the virus. Schools were closed and restrictions placed on non-essential businesses. The country announced that it would be closing its borders on March 19 and that only Costa Rican citizens, residents, embassy staff and/or other exemptions would be permitted entry into the country.
Subdued Holy Week
Easter week of March 6 — 10 was considered a high-risk period for infection spread as it is the traditional vacation week for locals. The government combated this by outlining much stricter regulations on vehicle circulation which effectively kept much of the population at home. Beach closures and the reintroduction of the Dry Law in many of the coastal towns forbidding alcohol sales made a trip to either of the country’s shores less appealing.
Beaches and national parks have been closed since March 20 as part of the government’s drive to deter movement from the heavily populated Central Valley area — where medical facilities and staffing are more prepared to deal with a wave of medical emergencies than the rural hospitals in the rest of the country.
One [license plate] to rule them all
Costa Rica’s constitution guarantees its citizens freedom of movement so the introduction of curfews or other restrictions to prevent people traveling across the country was impossible. Unlike neighboring Panama which reduced movement by only allowing men and women to leave their homes on different days, Costa Rica’s lawmakers dodged the constitutional headache by introducing road circulation restrictions based on the last digit on the license plate and restricting hours when vehicles could drive. These restrictions were then tightened over the weekends when vehicles are restricted to driving either Saturdays or Sundays to either the supermarket or pharmacy. With license plate confiscation, a fine, and points on the driver’s license as consequences for driving outside of permitted times, the restrictions have been largely effective.
Testing and results
As of May 12th, Costa Rica has tested almost 17,470 people and reported 804 positive cases of the virus with only seven deaths. As the President pointed out, the low mortality rate of 0.87% is due in part to Costa Rica’s investment into universal healthcare, social security and education since abolishing its army over 70 years ago.
Supported by the country’s respected Health Minister, Daniel Salas, who is a qualified surgeon and epidemiologist; the country has been guided by science in its decision making and received factual and informative briefings daily on numbers and any changes to restrictions. Check out their Twitter feed for daily data reporting.
Update: Per the Costa Rican Minister of Health’s figures, May 21 brought the total test numbers to 21,929 with 903 confirmed cases, 592 recoveries, and 10 deaths.
They’re singing our praises
International news sources such as the BBC, ABC and CNTraveler have applauded Costa Rica’s successful efforts in managing COVID-19 within the country. With the lowest mortality rate for the virus in Latin America, the nation is hoping to emerge from this global crisis as an attractive vacation option for tourists eager to get some sun after weeks, if not months, of “stay at home” lockdown. Costa Rica does not have many destinations which attract a high concentration of tourists and its boutique establishments at beach, volcano, and jungle settings are ideal for maintaining social distancing.
Even New Zealand’s success story — which has been picked up by the media, pales in comparison with Costa Rica’s numbers. Prime Minister Ardern’s efforts to quickly bring in strict measures led to the country registering only 1,476 positive cases and 19 deaths; however, Costa Rica has less cases and deaths even though the country’s populations are a similar size.
Costa Rica has borrowed New Zealand’s concept of Social Bubbles which minimizes the risk of transmission according to Stefan Flasche, the Associate Professor of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The bubbles consist of members of the same household and cannot be mixed with people from other households, work colleagues, or more distant family members.
Tourism? Yes, we’re still here!
The National Chamber of Tourism (ICT) predicts that Costa Rica could still receive 300,000 visitors before the end of 2020 if flights are resumed in August. Airlines will obviously have to introduce social distancing protocols for passengers and measures will be in place to ensure safe entry into the country at airports. The government is fully supporting the Costa Rican Institute of Tourism in its initial publicity to reactivate tourism for nationals before expanding its positive message to welcome international visitors into the country again. Younger visitors are expected to be the first to return to the country as they are less vulnerable to the virus and the ICT will be encouraging pricing throughout the industry to make vacations more affordable to tourists who usually have less disposable income than retirees.
What, if anything, has reopened?
There was some relaxing of measures when the number of reported cases had declined for 11 consecutive days and since May 1, the following businesses were allowed to reopen:
During the week, between 5 AM and 7 PM:
- movie theaters at 50% capacity
- non-contact sports facilities and gyms at 25% capacity
During the weekend, between 5 AM and 7 PM:
- beauty salons, barbers, and auto-repair shops at 50% capacity
New measures to start gradually opening the national parks, beaches, and hotels will be announced on Monday May 11 although limited hours and visitor numbers are expected for the national parks.
Vehicle restrictions in place since April 13 will continue through May 15 with transit being limited by license plate number between 5 AM and 7 PM and a total vehicle restriction between 7 PM and 5 AM every night. Moving forward, the government will reevaluate the measures every two weeks.
Commerce and restaurants will follow thereafter before Costa Rica prepares to reopen its borders on June 15.
Large-scale events will be the last step of the process.
President Carlos Alvarado will coordinate with the World Tourism Organization and other bodies to reactivate international tourism in the country with the appropriate protocols in place. He hopes to continue to move Costa Rica forward on its ambitious target of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 despite the economic blow delivered by the virus and considers the situation could provide opportunities for the creation of new sustainable businesses.
What Costa Rica is doing to move forward
During the periods outlined below in the Reopening Timetable, these driving restrictions are in place.
Monday to Friday, vehicles may circulate between 5:00 AM and 10:00 PM except:
- Plates ending in 1 & 2 cannot drive on Mondays
- Plates ending in 3 & 4 cannot drive on Tuesdays
- Plates ending in 5 & 6 cannot drive on Wednesdays
- Plates ending in 7 & 8 cannot drive on Thursdays
- Plates ending in 9 & 0 cannot drive on Fridays
During the weekend, vehicles may circulate between 5:00 AM and 7:00 PM as long as:
- Plates ending in odd numbers; 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9, drive only on Saturday
- Plates ending in even numbers; 0, 2, 4, 6 and 8, drive only on Sunday
What are these ‘bubbles’ you’re talking about?
The concept of Social Bubbles are for public places in order to reduce the spread of the virus.
As such, each bubble should be formed by people who live together and maintain a distance of 1.8 m from other social bubbles.
May 16 — 31
- National parks at 50% capacity and with pre-booked entry
- Non-contact recreative sports
- Professional contact sports without spectators
- At the weekends, food can be collected from the takeout window of restaurants
- Hotels with a maximum of 20 rooms can open at 50% capacity
- Beaches will open from 5:00 AM to 8:00 AM Mondays to Fridays
- Physical recreational activities are permitted
June 1 — 20
- Restaurants at 50% capacity
- Public parks at 50% capacity
- Museums at 50% capacity and with pre-booked entry
- Other hotels at 50% capacity
June 21 — July 12
- Stores at 50% capacity
- Movie theaters and theatres at 50% capacity
- Places of worship – maximum of 100 people, maintaining 1.8 meters distance
- Bars at 25% capacity
July 13 — August 2
- First, Sixth and Eleventh Grade students return to school with special protocols in place
- Professional contact sports with spectators at 20% of capacity
- Beaches will open while maintaining social bubbles
Costa Rica’s crisis timeline
For a great in-depth review of how Latin America has responded to COVID-19, please visit the Where Is the Coronavirus in Latin America? article.
TL;DR: The Golden Rules for Costa Rica, as introduced on May 11th, are as follows:
- No one with cold or flu symptoms should leave their home.
- People with serious illness that present risk factors if they contract COVI-19 must avoid public places.
- Face masks are recommended for public transport and enclosed spaces.
- It is recommended that movement in public places is within social bubbles; i.e. keeping members of a daily household together, yet apart from other bubbles.
- Never touch the face in public places and only touch the face after washing hands with soap and water.
Vamos Rent-A-Car is actively controlling its sphere of influence by:
- limiting the number of customers in the offices at a time
- spacing staff and customers apart within the offices
- attending to the customers across a counter to maintain social bubbles
- wearing appropriate apparel; including face shields, to interact with customers
- wiping down the vehicles and offices with hospital-grade alcohol solution before and after each interaction