By far the most FAQ of all of the Frequently Asked Questions since March has been “¿When will Costa Rica reopen for international travel?”
Despite Costa Rica being well on the road to containing Covid19, travel restrictions will remain in place to protect against reintroduction.
After shutting down March 18th, Costa Rica initially scheduled re-opening for the Monday after Easter on April 13th. Of course that didn’t happen and has been followed by a painful trickle of extensions (
April 13th, May 1st, May 15th, June 15th, currently July 1st).
Costa Rica escaped the first round of the pandemic nearly unscathed with under 1,000 total cases and single digit fatalities. Openings of national parks, beaches and other infrastructure began in May and expanded in June; but only for people already in Costa Rica.
Unfortunately, even before significant re-opening there was a sharp increase in new cases at the end of May. The recently relaxed driving curfew was moved back from 10 p.m. to 5 p.m. in regions near the border.
The border closure for foreigners is officially re-re-re-scheduled to end July 1st.
There is no plan describing who will be allowed in or what restrictions will be applied so we’re confident of re-re-re-re-scheduling until at least August. While understandable, the government’s lack of commitment is not helpful for planning international travel.
So, When Exactly?
…the magic 🎱 ball says…”Reply hazy, try again later”…
We don’t know and neither does anyone else. The official strategy has been optimism, followed by a dose of reality, followed by delay while optimism builds again.
At the end of
April May the government extended all tourist visas until July 17th August 18th. This implies that visitors who didn’t make it out prior to the borders closing could remain trapped in paradise at least that long.
Although United Airlines has a few “repatriation” flights from the U.S. scheduled in June (Costa Ricans only headed south to a 14 day quarantine, other nationalities allowed northbound but cannot return) unrestricted flights aren’t scheduled until mid-August.
Those hints imply that the chances are dwindling that any international travelers could return by July or August.
Trying to restart in September and October raises a new concern. These are normally the lowest travel months with occupancy 80% less than peak season. We’ve been saying for some time that businesses will decide that even if they are allowed to open sooner, it won’t be economically viable start up until the high season resumes in December.
At the beginning of May we saw the first signs as some of the lodges and hotels we have bulk discount agreements with have informed us they will not reopen until the end of the year. They will begin to notify the public soon.
To avoid cancellations or activity restrictions we recommend planning a Costa Rica vacation for Christmas or New Years.
Costa Rica quickly reached what infectious disease experts call an “R” of less than one. Each existing infection caused less than one new infection and active cases headed towards R zero by mid-May… barely 8 weeks after travel was shut down.
It’s obviously one of the safest destinations in the world so why would we predict travel won’t recover for months? After dodging the bullet on the first round Costa Rica will have to wait until it can guarantee that incoming travelers aren’t carrying a second wave.
The Unknown Will Delay Normal Travel
The unknown is a huge factor. No one knows how accurate testing is, how many tests are enough, how long immunity lasts or how many people are asymptomatic carriers. It will take years to answer all of these questions and until then there will be risks associated with travel whether it’s down the street to the supermarket or to a beach in Costa Rica.
Hundreds of millions of tests are needed over many months post “recovery” before epidemiologists can determine what is statistically “safe”.
Quarantines & Testing Upon Arrival
Although the borders are closed to the arrival of foreigners, Costa Ricans are being allowed to return home. Everyone who arrives from outside the country is required to quarantine for 14 days. The obvious problem with that as a general solution for everyone is most vacationers don’t stay that long.
At the beginning of May Costa Rica began a shorter quarantine program for truck drivers at the border. They submit a swab sample to test for the presence of coronavirus DNA and are required to wait in holding areas for 24-48 hours for the results.
PCR amplification of DNA has been around for a long time. 25 years ago as biochemistry graduate students we did everything manually in less than a day but now robots are much faster. However, there are some problems extending this solution to tourism.
If a single person on a flight tested positive for the presence of the virus everyone on that flight would have to be rounded up and sent home or quarantined for 14 days.
There’s not remotely enough space for everyone to socially distance in the airport terminals and wait for results.
Selective Travel Ban Solutions?
One strategy to prevent reintroduction is choosing which individuals may travel but so called “immunity passports” are more than a year away.
Another option for partial opening might involve allowing travel from “recovered” countries while blocking those with ongoing epidemics.
Unfortunately, successful containment countries like Germany and New Zealand only represent a tiny fraction of tourist here. The U.S. accounts for more visitors to Costa Rica than the rest of the world combined but also has a million cases and climbing.
The real recovery in Costa Rican tourism will remain on hold until it’s safe to allow visitors from the U.S. which looks likely to take months.
The conversation about recovery is just beginning with phrases like “double bubble”, “distancing”, and “immunity passport” being tossed around as potential solutions. Ultimately it will require much more testing to allow a better understanding of what we face and a leader who steps up and unifies the world response.
Costa Rica is not a cheap destination and travelers’ finances have been devastated by the economic disaster accompanying Covid19. It’s hard to estimate the impact but with almost half U.S. households losing one or more jobs a whole lot of vacation funds were spent on groceries and rent.
Of course the wealthy will still be able to afford to travel so Costa Rica’s luxury resorts may recover sooner.
There are still a couple of long shots at a quick recovery. While high doses of hydroxychoroquine were proven useless as a treatment and only slightly less dangerous than the U.S. president’s suggestions of injecting disinfectants or somehow inhaling a tanning bed to expose the lungs to UV light there are some lucky breaks that might still come to our rescue.
Summer Relief from “Flu Season”
There’s no solid evidence that warmer weather will reduce the transmission of coronavirus but there’s no evidence that it won’t.
It’s easy to fall into a trap of considering coincidences evidence. For example, even though tropical Costa Rica was quite late taking action there were never many cases…maybe because it’s warm? Or looking at a world map and saying look at all these countries in the southern hemisphere with unexpectedly low numbers…maybe because it’s summer there?
It would be great if summer in the northern hemisphere is accompanied by a huge drop in transmission. It will be a welcome three or four month respite to try to ready a more reasonable response before fall and the return of “flu season” but there’s no evidence relief is imminent.
“Worse” hardly sounds like a miraculous quick recovery scenario but it is. Initial antibody studies at the end of April suggested that many millions more people were infected than detected.
It’s possible that the politicians actually caused this disaster by trying to prevent testing in order to reduce the number of known cases. If you don’t test you can’t know how many people are asymptomatic.
The math works like this. If you only test the very obviously ill then you’ll have a very high percentage of positive results along with an extremely inflated mortality rate. You’ll also miss the vast majority of infections (current studies say up to 96% missed) and the total number of detected cases will look very low. Now you can say “We have very low numbers of cases. I like the numbers being where they are.”
If it turns out that 96% of the infections were missed then the real mortality rate is 25 times lower than estimated and we’re well on our way to herd immunity and the end of this disaster. It also means the whole “close the borders”, “stay at home” and watch the economy implode could have been avoided with massive early testing as opposed to denial.
Once a vaccine is proven it will almost certainly become a requirement for travel to Costa Rica. But the key is that immunity must be proven first and whether it’s from natural immunity after exposure or through a vaccine it will take years to characterize fully.
Immunity Passport is just a trendy new name for something that has been around for decades. International travelers have long been required to prove their inoculation history when entering countries susceptible to diseases from a place it’s prevalent.
In Costa Rica the only example was the requirement for a Yellow Fever vaccine for anyone arriving from an African, Asian or South American country where they may have been exposed.
However, stamping Covid19 immunity in WHO cards or on a separate document any time prior to about 2022 would be reckless and pointless.
The most important factor preventing immunity passports for coronavirus is that until a year or so has passed, no one can possibly have any evidence that there is any long term immunity anyway.
There are several other stumbling blocks.
Unless there’s been a massive underestimation very few would qualify based on having tested positive. In fact world wide it’s less than 1 in 5,000 so obviously not worth starting the airlines back up.
Families would be split up by immunity and probably won’t want to leave mom at home. There’s even concern that people might seek out infection in order to get immunity and thus a passport back to a normal world.
There may also be political difficulties even if the scientific ones are overcome. The U.S. has declined to participate in world health initiatives at least until the elections in November.
Without a proven vaccine that can be given to everyone the idea of limiting the risk by limiting movements based on immunity is not practical
It seems so simple I can’t imagine that we’re the first to think of this but I haven’t seen anyone else saying it so here’s our solution for safe international travel to resume in Costa Rica.
- Individual countries use the social distancing and test/trace protocols already proven to drive transmission down to manageable levels.
- Everyone boarding a flight to Costa Rica submits swab samples.
- While the plane is in the air the samples are tested for viral DNA by PCR and viral proteins by antigen testing
a. Any positive result and the plane turns around so everyone on board can be quarantined back in the country of origin
b. All negatives and everyone heads to the beaches and rain forest!
The detection rate for the combination of three layers of testing (one at home and two on the flight) would be nearly 100%. Of course Costa Rica would also continue their campaign of testing and tracing which would add a fourth layer of protection and the ability to quickly contain any infection that slipped through.
Having worked in biochemisty and the biomedical sciences I know these test can be quick and accurate at cost of a few cents each.
The Hidden Vulnerability of Incubation Time
In a couple of years when the vaccine is available and long term immunity has been demonstrated then the tests for the virus can be replaced with tests for human antibodies to the virus by high-throughput ELISA and the issuing of immunity passports.