Costa Rica Vaccine Mandate

What are Business Owners Thinking About the Costa Rica Vaccine Mandate to Begin December 1?

As the government announces a Costa Rica vaccine mandate to begin December 1, we get on the phone and onto social media to see what businesses are thinking about this.

Before we start, there’s a small irony I’d like to share surrounding Wednesday’s announcement that Costa Rica will mandate Covid vaccines for, well, almost everything from December 1.

The first irony is, that as this news was being delivered, I was suffering the side affects of my second vaccination. Otherwise I would have written something already, as this is surely the biggest news to affect tourists, expats, and potential expats in some time. It’s the biggest pandemic news since flights and tourism came back in August last year. Bigger, in fact.

But I got my second dose put into my arm on Tuesday, and it kicked my ass. On Tuesday night and Wednesday, it was all I could do to see words swimming around on my screen, let alone write words myself. Thursday was a little better but not much. Fevers, chills, and a terrible headache put pay to anything I had to say these past couple of days, about this or anything else.

I’m not saying this as an “anti-vaxxer” (I’m nothing of the kind), or trying to spread anti-vax propaganda. My symptoms were quite normal, and quite expected for a second dose of Pfizer. Maybe a little harsher than some, but no big deal in the long run. And today I’m fine. If you think the Covid vaccine is something you should get, then get it. All I’m doing is explaining why it’s taken me until today to write about all this, that’s all. And because I like little ironies. But let’s move on.

For anyone in Costa Rica who’s been living under a rock this week, on Wednesday the government announced that from December 1, it would be imposing vaccine mandates for most places.

You’ll need to prove you’re fully-vaccinated to enter the following places:

  • Restaurants (and any place serving food including sodas, cafes, food courts, food trucks, etc.)
  • Bars
  • Casinos
  • Stores and shopping malls (EXCLUDING supermarkets, pharmacies, banks, and any other place deemed essential)
  • Museums
  • Fitness centers (gyms, yoga studios, pilates, CrossFit, etc.)
  • Accommodations (hotels, hostels, cabinas, etc.)
  • Places of worship (churches and church activities)
  • Events (business, social, academic, etc.)
  • Adventure tourism activities (zip lining, rafting, etc.)
  • Theaters, cinemas, art galleries, concerts (any place of artistic expression)
  • Sporting activities (watching sports or participating in sports)

To enter any of the above establishments or to participate in any of the above activities, you will need to prove you’re fully vaccinated against Covid with a QR code.

You can get this code anytime on or after November 8 by registering the PIN number on your vaccine certificate with the Ministry of Health through this link.

Those of you without a vaccine certificate – meaning you just have the card they gave you for your first Covid vaccination – can apply for it right here, as long as it’s eight days or more since you received your second dose. Be aware it might take some time to receive this – some people have been waiting for weeks, and there’s no doubt going to be a massive rush on this going forward.

Costa Rican citizens and residents who took up presidential advice earlier this year, and went to the United States or elsewhere to get vaccinated, can also receive their QR codes by submitting a sworn declaration to the Ministry of Health alongside their foreign vaccination card and the info on the Health Pass they needed to return to Costa Rica.

What about tourists?

The government has said nothing about mandating vaccines to enter Costa Rica. Right now, you can enter the country unvaccinated as long as you buy health insurance to cover the duration of your stay. Fully-vaccinated tourists can forgo buying the insurance.

But here’s the thing. You can enter the country unvaccinated as a tourist, but if you need to be vaccinated to stay at a hotel, go to a restaurant, or participate in any of the activities that make Costa Rica so attractive in the first place, what will you do? Where will you stay? How will that work?

Well, it seems like unvaccinated tourists won’t be able to partake in many leisure activities. They will be able to enter the country, sure. But not stay in a hotel, go out for a meal, take a zip line tour, get a haircut, or buy a souvenir.

It seems crazy that Costa Rica will allow unvaccinated tourists to buy the insurance and enter, and then prohibit them from doing anything while here. But there you go. Why not just demand all tourists entering the country be vaccinated, the same as the United States does? Wouldn’t that be easier? Or would that affect the insurance business?

Right now, no-one seems to know exactly how this will affect tourists entering Costa Rica from December 1.

Oh – and what about AirBnBs and other home rentals? Will they have to set up QR code readers for entry? Or will it just be hotels? Right there, a grave inequality that will have hoteliers grinding their teeth.

There’s so much to unpick here, it’s difficult to know where to start.

Perhaps I’ll start with Aaron Atkey. He’s a Costa Rican/Canadian restaurant owner in Santa Teresa on the Nicoya Peninsula, and he’s deeply worried about this situation. Worried enough to consider getting out of the restaurant business altogether, he says.

We’ve chatted with Aaron before, and he’s a nice guy and a positive source of energy around Santa Teresa. The guy works tirelessly for his community, championing Santa Teresa and the Southern Nicoya Peninsula in everything he does.

He has a fish restaurant called La Cervicheria and is a partner in a fishing business, Peninsula Fishing. He’s openly wondering how on earth he’s supposed to police locals’ and tourists’ QR codes just for the sake of a bowl of ceviche (very good ceviche, I may add).

It was hard enough getting people to come in with a mask,” he says. “And now this? I’m worried about the future.

He talks about the absurdity of demanding proof of vaccine to take people out fishing. A day on a boat, in fresh air and sunshine, where Covid transmission is virtually impossible.

What they’re making businesses do is an absurdity. The powers that be in the Central Valley don’t care at all. They’re underestimating how much this will affect tourism.

Elsewhere, many tourism business owners feel the same way.

The Empresarios y Trabajadores de Turismo en Costa Rica Facebook group is full of concern about how this will affect them.

It’s a disproportionate and absurd measure,” says one poster. “Imagine restaurants and shops… to comply with this imposition, they would have to hire staff to verify those certificates at the entrance. To me that’s a dirty strategy of the government to force the private sector to hire staff.

Someone enlighten me please,” says someone else. “The international tourist can enter the country without proof of vaccination, but can only enter a hotel with vaccination? What will they do? Sleep on the street?

Comments like this make up the bulk of feedback in this group. There’s some support for the measures, but it’s limited. People are worried, and they have every right to be.

Look, I’m not “anti-vax”. Not by a long shot. As mentioned at the top of this article, I’m vaccinated myself.

I have zero issue with the concept of vaccine mandates, either. For example, I’m also vaccinated against yellow fever, because Costa Rican law says I must be to enter the country from certain other countries. That’s never been an issue for me at all.

But even though I need a yellow fever shot to enter Costa Rica from certain countries, Costa Rican citizens don’t (Article 22 of the Costa Rican Constitution states that no requirements be imposed on a Costa Rican to prevent them from entering the country). So a Costa Rican citizen and I on the same plane from, say, Colombia both have different requirements to get into the country. That’s fine, I have no problem with that. Nobody, however, is standing at the door of a gym telling the Costa Rican he can’t come in because he’s unvaccinated against yellow fever.

Twitter is full of people reminding us that Costa Rica has long mandated vaccines.

And that’s true – it has. TB, hepatitis, measles, meningitis, and other vaccines are long mandatory in Costa Rica for children. That’s great. But nobody is checking for your measles vaccination to enter a bar or restaurant.

Doing the same thing with a Covid vaccination is illiberal and abhorrent, not only in Costa Rica, but everywhere. And given that Covid rates around the world seem not to care how vaccinated a country is, it seems pointless.

People all over the world are protesting and fighting against the very mandates announced yesterday for Costa Rica. In Italy, they’re on the streets. Australia. France. Especially France. The French Senate yesterday overwhelmingly voted against the type of mandates on the cards in Costa Rica.

Most countries are turning away from solutions like this, not running towards them. The most progressive, liberal countries in the world, countries Costa Rica aspires to be like, are abandoning solutions like this. Think Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.

I don’t know what the solution is here. Forcing people to choose between their jobs and this vaccine, their daily lives and this vaccine is wrong on so many levels. Taking away the small pleasures people have in life is incredibly bitter and mean-spirited. Forcing businesses and business owners to have to police this is also wrong.

If Costa Rica really wants to mandate vaccines, it should do it properly.

That means demanding anyone entering the country is vaccinated. No more Covid insurance get-out for people. Personally, I have no problem with this. We’ve done it with yellow fever for years and no-one complained.

It also, however, means getting the CCSS to go around the country, door-to-door, checking to see if everyone is vaccinated, and imposing deadlines and fines for those who aren’t.

Health Minister Daniel Salas ruled this out yesterday, saying that obligatory vaccination is “too complex” and so hasn’t been contemplated. It poses too great of a challenge.

To me, this sounds cowardly. It sounds like he wants business owners to do his dirty work for him.

And then he went on to stress he was only making leisure activities subject to vaccination, like taking away the small pleasures enjoyed by a hard-working population is something to be proud of.

Don’t get me wrong, obligatory Covid vaccination is, to use the same word twice in short succession, abhorrent.

It’s the sort of thing fascist countries would do, and I’m glad that’s not happening. But at least, in terms of what the government wants, it’s honest. And at least it takes the onus off business owners to have to police this situation themselves.

I still believe there’s a chance this might not happen. Maybe I’m naive, but hear me out.

First, Covid numbers are dropping again in Costa Rica. 

Plummeting, in fact. The third big wave of Covid is on a serious downslide, and this is six weeks before the mandates begin. If things stay the same, why on earth would they decide to risk the tourism economy again by creating these mandate? Unless, of course, I am naive and this thing has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with power.

Second, one thing Costa Rica isn’t known for is its efficiency with government apps. There are already issues with people trying to get their vaccination certificates right now. Social media is full of reports of people having problems getting their online certificates, like this one from the Empresarios y Trabajadores de Turismo en Costa Rica Facebook group:

You can’t imagine right now the slowness of the Ministry of Health in issuing vaccination certificates. I submitted my application on September 23rd and I still haven’t got the certificate. The ministry is really falling short on this certification issue.

There are plenty of tales like this all over social media. If the government can’t fix this in time, how can they possibly start the mandate on December 1? Maybe they will fix it, but given the track record of things like this, I won’t hold my breath. And then, of course, every business has to receive a QR code reader. That’s not really an issue – you can get those as apps for your phone. But not every business owner knows about these things. Think mom’n’pop sodas in the middle of nowhere, for example.

The first reason could, theoretically, mean the whole idea goes away. If Covid numbers drop going into the dry season, why rock the boat with mandates? The second reason might put it off until January or February. Who knows? As I said, I’m probably naive.

And then there’s a third reason. 

The mandates kill tourism (or at least put a severe dent into the recovery), and businesses put pressure on the government to scrap them or change them in some way. After almost two years of a crashed economy and a rebound only just starting again, does the government want to wreck things? I know they’re on their way out early next year, but still, if comments like this one to the Tico Times yesterday keep coming in…

That’s the end of family trips from the UK. Our under 17s can’t get a vaccine pass. We’ve only just started doing vaccines for teens. We were due to go with a 14yr old in December. He can’t get a vaccine pass by then, so that’s us, and any other families with teens in the UK done. We can still and will cancel and head somewhere where our son can do things. What a shame.

Bear in mind, the UK has only just reopened to Costa Rican tourism by taking it off its Red List. I can talk about how impractical and immoral these vaccine mandates are, but on a sheer business level, if they stop people from coming here as we try to kickstart tourism again, they just seem stupid.

To offer a small grain of hope, Belize just went through the same thing. Their health minister went on TV and said vaccine mandates would kick in on October 1, prohibiting all unvaccinated people from any public building in the country. Restaurants, bars, stores, public transport, everything. Turns out that was completely unpractical and now it’s just government buildings under this mandate. Could we see a similar about turn here?

I guess we’ll see real soon.

James Dyde is the editor of centralamerica.com. He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.