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Costa Rica History: Getting Around The Voting Day Booze Ban

The first Sunday in February is the traditional Costa Rica election day. This year, the elections are mainly for alcaldes (mayors) and their supporting casts. The next presidential election is still two years off, but when it arrives, it too will be the first Sunday in February. Until recently, the ley seca – dry law– was in effect on the presidential election day. Alcohol sales in any form were prohibited.

This was only a big deal to bar owners in areas of the country with large expat populations. As the NFL season lengthened, and stretched into February, the Super Bowl fell on the same day as the Costa Rican presidential election on several occasions. There was a protocol the authorities followed.

On the Saturday night before the election, any bar that did not serve food was closed and adhesive seals were stamped with the date that they could be removed (the Monday after the election) and placed over the doors and windows. Restaurants were allowed to stay open, but the same adhesive seals were used to close all beer coolers and yellow police tape was wrapped around all shelves that held bottles of liquor.

Any evidence of tampering resulted in a large fine. Restaurant owners got creative on those Super Bowl Sundays that coincided with the presidential election. One trick was to stash some of the liquor– not all as you wanted to appear in compliance– and as many cases of beer as you planned to sell the next day, somewhere outside the area of the bar. Once the authorities had done their work, the bottles of liquor were stored in nooks and crannies beneath the bar.

Beers were stored in regular Coleman coolers full of ice, also under the bar. With so many restaurants using the same system, the ice delivery people had probably their best day of the year. All beers and cocktails were served in plastic cups, the idea being that you could tell the police that all the customers brought in their own drinks.

But the police were strangely absent on those Sundays. Except one time. I was the bartender/manager of a popular sports bar and grill in Quepos, and we came up with a plan. The place had four large rectangular apertures that faced the street, giving it an open-air effect.

Each night at closing, I would cover the four openings with large, heavy fitted wooden barriers that were secured in place with a system of slats and supports. It was very secure and once they were in place, and the front door closed, it was impossible to see inside the restaurant.

On the days leading up, we discreetly took reservations for the ‘private party’ we would have for Super Bowl Sunday. The day prior to the Super Bowl– and election day– we closed, so that the men with the adhesive seals and yellow tape would not have access. The restaurant had two seldom used air conditioners, which we cranked a couple hours before the game. By kickoff, we had a full house and everything proceeded as normal.

By the second quarter, the air conditioners were no match for the hundred or so gathered, drinking and smoking (this was when smoking inside public places was still legal), and it warmed up to the point that someone opened the front door to let air in. Within minutes the police arrived.

One of our guests was an ex-mayor of Quepos– a VIT (Very Important Tico) and he spoke with the police and whatever explanation he gave them worked– temporarily. But other neighboring restaurants, aware of what we were doing, called the police again and late in the 4th quarter they arrived, armed with adhesive seals and yellow tape.

As the game reached it’s climax– and it ended on a field goal on the final play– I was reaching into the cooler and pulling out 4 bottles at a time, serving customers at the same time the cops were sealing the coolers and telling me “No mas, no mas”. Everybody went home happy.

We made our money on one of the most profitable days of the year and the authorities got to flex their muscle and show that no one was above the ley seca, even if their actions were akin to the classic closing of the barn door after the cows escaped. The ley seca is no longer mandatory, and areas that cater to tourists can now serve alcohol on election day.

The NFL now stretches the season even further, so that the Super Bowl is the second Sunday in February, and no longer falls on the Costa Rican election day. And private parties and hidden bottles and coolers full of iced beer on Super Bowl Sunday are just another piece of Costa Rica history here never to be seen again.

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