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Previewing Costa Rica’s decision to reopen its airports

Costa Rica is expected to announce Thursday the details of its planned airport reopening.

“We are going to maintain the August 1 date,” Health Minister Daniel Salas said this week, indicating that the process will be gradual and won’t include reopening Costa Rica’s land borders with Panama and Nicaragua.

However, it will include both major international airports — Juan Santamaría near San José and Daniel Oduber Quirós in Liberia, Guanacaste.

“This week, we must indicate the countries, states or places to which we will give authorization,” Salas added, saying that “it wouldn’t make much sense” to welcome visitors from areas with a “complete lack of control of the virus, where the number of cases is very extensive.”

Here’s what we know (and what we don’t) as Costa Rica takes a much-anticipated step.

Borders have been restricted since mid-March

Costa Rica declared a State of Emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 16. In turn, the country shut down its borders to arriving tourists and non-residents starting at 11:59 p.m. on March 18.

The restrictions have been extended several times, and the current rules expire at 11:59 p.m. on August 1.

The border restrictions almost certainly helped

Costa Rica successfully flattened the curve. Even as countries around the world suffered from saturated hospitals (and rising deaths) in March, April and May, Costa Rica was able to resume some economic activity during that stretch.

Meanwhile, the country created a coronavirus-specific hospital (CEACO), finished building a new tower at Calderón Guardia Hospital, began implementing COVID-19 treatments, started tracking wastewater for traces of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, amassed more PPE and ventilators, and otherwise became much more prepared to face a large-scale health emergency.

While Costa Rica’s early success can’t be attributed just to the border restrictions, they were unquestionably a key part of a strategy that allowed health officials to prevent widespread community transmission until mid-July.

The impact of the restrictions has been massive

It’s too soon to say exactly how big of an impact the coronavirus crisis will have on Costa Rica — or the world at large. But the border restrictions have had a major influence on life here, particularly since the country relies so heavily on tourism.

Unemployment has reached record highs, transportation of some merchandise was temporarily halted, and even international mail has been limited.

The Costa Rica Tourism Board has asked for the airports to reopen since June, while mayors and business-owners have recently amplified their calls to relax restrictions.

Of course, even if Costa Rica had kept its airports open for tourism, it’s likely the number of visitors would have plummeted due to the worldwide health emergency. Regardless, the country is in a difficult economic situation, a long way from recovery, and many small businesses won’t survive.

Most visitors won’t be allowed in at first

Even if Costa Rica begins allowing tourists on August 2, it will only do so from areas that have controlled the spread of the coronavirus. At face value, that would probably exclude the United States — the country from which the most visitors enter Costa Rica — though Costa Rica could theoretically set different rules for different states.

The Health Ministry has alluded to following a model similar to that of the European Union, where the current list of allowed countries is short (and doesn’t include the United States either).

Visitors will have to follow protocols

Visitors to Costa Rica will have to follow protocols that include presenting an epidemiological form (link to form) to immigration authorities.

We don’t know if travelers will be required to self-isolate; whether proof of a negative coronavirus test will be necessary; or whether they will be required to purchase private insurance before entering the country.

Airport authorities have previously said they have no plans to implement on-site coronavirus testing. Health authorities have previously alluded to requiring visitors to purchase insurance during the pandemic.

Summary: Costa Rica reopening its borders/airports

The Tico Times will have full coverage of the 1 p.m. press conference, when the Health Ministry is expected to detail plans for the airports reopening.

Costa Rica will begin allowing visitors — only from certain areas — who must adhere to certain health protocols.

Over recent weeks, Costa Rica has regularly set new highs in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. Deaths, once infrequent, are now a daily occurrence, and some public hospitals are reaching capacity.

Like all countries, Costa Rica walks a fine line between keeping its citizens safe and keeping its economy intact. With hospitalizations spiking — and the pandemic “showing no signs of slowing down” in the Americas — expect Costa Rica to proceed with extreme caution.


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