COVID-19 Confusion Reigns in Costa Rica

Jul 30, 2020

On a day of COVID-19 confusion and mixed messages in Costa Rica, we try to cut through the crap and read between the lines. And, we admit, rant a little.

Have you ever had one of those days where you feel like you’re going insane? Your stress level are going though the roof and nothing makes sense?

Of course you have. You’re living in the year 2020.

Unless you’re over 75… or from Rwanda, Nicaragua, Venezuela, or some other country that’s gone through extreme trauma in recent years, chances are that 2020 is the most insane year of your life. Chances are nothing makes sense anymore. Maybe your mental health is affected. You’re not alone in that.

Double down on all that if you’re reading this. If you’re reading this, you have some interest in Costa Rica. You’re either in Costa Rica or trying to get to Costa Rica.

The point I’m trying to make is that in a year where nothing makes sense, today’s stories from Costa Rica seems to compound all the craziness.

A lot of weird, hard-to-get-your-head-around stuff happened today. I’m trying to make sense of things.

First there was an article in the Tico Times which set off a veritable shitstorm on social media.

The article was based on a document the Costa Rican Consulate in Miami, Florida posted on Facebook.

In the article, the Consulate stirred up the masses by suggesting US citizens COULD enter Costa Rica from August 1, after all. But – here’s the rub – only if they’d been residing for at least two weeks before arrival in one of the “allowed countries”.

For want of a better expression, an “allowed country” is one of those on the list of nations whose citizens can enter Costa Rica from August 1. That’s Canada, the UK, EU countries, and non-EU countries in the Schengen Zone. We provided a full list of these countries last week, 36 in all.

It’s worth pointing out that the consulate missed eight counties in its own list. That’s by no means the fault of the Tico Times – they were just translating a document posted on Facebook. It leads me to question, however, the full veracity of what the consulate says.

If they can’t get the number of countries who can enter Costa Rica right, what else is wrong?

Anyway, back to the subject of Americans getting into Costa Rica via a third, allowed country.

You can, as a US-citizen, go to Canada, the UK, the EU, or any country allowed in on August 1, stay two weeks there, and come to Costa Rica.

This is what the consulate said.

What the consulate did NOT say was that US citizens are not allowed to enter Canada at this time.

So even if an American wanted to come to Costa Rica by staying in Canada (under quarantine) for two weeks, they could not. Canada won’t allow them in.

In Europe, it’s the same. Most of Europe is closed to American citizens right now. The only exceptions are Albania, Croatia, Ireland, North Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey (yeah yeah, part Asia, I know), the UK, and Ukraine.

Of these countries, only two (Croatia and Ireland) are in the EU and applicable to enter Costa Rica.          

But you can’t fly to Costa Rica from either country, making them moot. In any case, the only country mentioned here with direct flights to Costa Rica (starting October 27) is the UK which (to my personal chagrin)  is in the process of leaving the EU.

So technically, yes, as an American, you could come to the UK, stay 14 days (locked in under the UK’s quarantine laws), and then go to Costa Rica starting October 27.

Under current rules, you won’t be allowed into France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, or Switzerland to stay for two weeks before entering Costa Rica as a tourist. These are the other countries apart from the UK you’d need to stay two weeks in first, as they have direct flights to Costa Rica.

Could these rules change? Sure. They will change, without doubt. But at this moment, as the rules stand today, there’s no getting into Costa Rica this way until October 27 at the earliest. And only if you’re prepared to undergo a super-strict quarantine in the UK beforehand.

If you’re a resident of any of these countries, then it’s different.

American citizens already living in Canada, the UK, France, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, or Switzerland can get on a plane as soon as it’s available.

But make sure you’re a legal resident. Otherwise you might not get back into your European country again.

My gripe about this story is that the Costa Rican Consulate in Miami came out with all this today, knowing that people would jump on it as a sign of hope.

I understand it’s not their business to know the immigration policies of other countries, but surely a rudimentary glance at what’s going on elsewhere could have avoided confusion and heartache for many people.

The second piece of COVID-19 confusion to happen in Costa Rica today was about insurance.

The same Miami Consulate document said that tourists coming to Costa Rica from August 1 need to buy their mandatory travel insurance from the Costa Rican national insurance company INS.

Unlike the story about Americans going through a third country to get to Costa Rica, this wasn’t hyperbole. It was picked up and reported on in the Costa Rican press as well.

When the tourism minister set down the guidelines for restarting foreign tourism last week, he did not mention this. I’m sure he never knew.

At the time, he said the requisite was only to have insurance that covered the cost of any treatment you might need for COVID-19 and also any quarantine you might find yourself in.

Now it seems like Costa Rica’s moved the goalposts. Right now, if all the reports are correct, Costa Rica will only accept official INS insurance. Any other insurance is invalid.

Already, private insurers in Costa Rica are up in arms, saying the government “forgets Costa Rica is no longer a monopoly.”

The move might even be illegal, going against CAFTA rules of competition.                                                    

The government can’t make up its insurance rules and then only allow their own company to sell said insurance.

At the very least you can expect to see some severe pushback to this story as it develops. And possibly, some future lawsuits.

I can see not only other insurance companies objecting to this, but also the tourism industry if the high cost of the insurance keeps people away.

The INS insurance isn’t cheap. A two-week policy for a 30-year-old is $280. People on social media are saying they can get insurance covering Costa Rica’s COVID requirements for $60.

It seems like Costa Rica is doing its best to keep people out while pretending they’re welcome to come in.

In the meantime, the issue causes more stress and confusion to those wanting to get back to Costa Rica.    

If you’re a perpetual tourist in Costa Rica without your residency yet, how much will INS insurance cost for 90 days? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

So did the government know they’d only allow INS insurance last week? If so, why didn’t they tell us at the time? Or did they scrabble this together on the back of a cigarette packet as a way to squeeze more money out of the few tourists that will arrive?

It could be that as Costa Rica is still on the list of many places (like the EU) as a country they don’t recommend visiting, then any local insurance might be invalid. For example, the UK recommends not traveling to Costa Rica. That can affect British travel insurance. If that’s the case, though, they should have told us at the time. Anything else is disingenuous.

And it wouldn’t be the first time in this crisis that the government has come up with a rule that turns out to be illegal. I’m thinking about the recent alcohol ban proposal. Could this be the same? Like everything else, we wait and see. It’s all anyone can do.

The final piece of COVID-19 confusion today came with the governments restriction announcement for August.

In today’s daily briefing, already a surreal affair on the best of days, the government laid out the restriction rules for next month. The bottom line is that August is now split up into three parts.

You have Aug 1 to August 9 where things (touch wood) will reopen a smidgeon in orange zones.

Then from August 10 to August 21, all orange alert zones shut down. That means the whole GAM where most people live. Only the most essential of businesses can open and you can only drive twice a week, one weekday and one weekend day. After that, from August 22, things will go back to August 1-9 rules.

Although I’m unsure of the purpose of why they’re doing this, at least I understand the rules more than the other issues I’ve laid out here. They seem more black and white. I mean, all they’ll do is cripple the economy even more than it already is, but you know, pura vida.

The official reason is to allow authorities to isolate patients who catch COVID-19 during that August 1-9 period.

But that makes no sense. Why can’t they do that anyway? And what if cases start to drop some between now and August 10?

Wishful thinking, I know. But isn’t it absurd to put a near-total shutdown in place on a set date two weeks in the future, without knowing how events on the ground will be at that time?

The only practical reason I can imagine for this is that the middle of August is a big holiday in Costa Rica. It’s Mother’s Day on the 15th and I guess they want to keep people out of restaurants and family gatherings. I can understand the reasoning, even if I don’t agree.

You can look at our neighboring countries to see that lockdowns don’t work. Well, let me rephrase that. Lockdowns might work in rich European countries where they pay you to stay in.

They sure don’t work in poor developing countries where staying in can mean starvation.

Yet it still seems like not only are we doubling down on the lockdown policy, we’re “booking” new lockdowns two weeks in advance. That, to me, is insane.

Mixed messages and confusion have been a hallmark of policy in Costa Rica since this thing started.

No-one seems to know what they’re doing. You can see it from the way from the way present data to how they stagger from one plan to the next. From how they tell you to snitch on their neighbors here. From how they slash bus services without thinking of the consequences there. Or shut down your only source of income. Or how one minister says you can’t drive while another says you can. It’s a farce and would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic, affecting real people’s lives.

In the meantime, Costa Rica unemployment is over 20%, its highest rate ever. Some 40% of all stores in shopping centers have closed, many forever. Hotels are closing even before the August 1 reopening date because they can’t pay their utility bills. Again, a lot of these might never open again.

Hundreds of thousands of people live off the generosity of food banks, having received no official help whatsoever.

It almost feels like the wheels are coming off.                                                                                                        

More Ticos hit the streets every day to protest. The bus drivers one day. The business community another. Public workers another.

People are seeing their savings wither away, their jobs disappear, and their ability to pay rent or buy food evaporate. And in the meantime all we get is confusion and mixed messages.

I don’t for one minute believe in the COVID “hoax” or “plandemic” I see bandied about on social media by conspiracy theorists. The government of Costa Rica, for the most part, consists of good people doing the best they can. I believe that. And of course, I know that Costa Rica isn’t the only country struggling with the same issues.

But the government needs to get a grip. And they could make things easier for everyone with less mixed-messaging and COVID-19 confusion.

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