San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Dry Law Enforced on Election Day

Thinking of going to a bar next Sunday, Feb. 5, to have a few beers and maybe watch the Super Bowl football game? Think again. Article 80 of Costa Rica’s Election Code prohibits the sale of alcohol on Election Day, the day before and the day after.


That means businesses whose main attraction is booze, such as bars, are required to close, said Hector Fernández, Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) Director of Electoral Programs.


Drinking in private homes is legal, but alcohol would have to be purchased in advance – the ban begins at midnight Friday and ends at midnight Monday.


Businesses that sell alcohol but don’t make it their main focus, such as supermarkets and restaurants, may stay open, but must clearly close off the area where alcohol is sold.


National Police officers visit these businesses and mark the off-limits alcohol selection with a piece of paper stamped with an official seal, said Public Security Ministry spokesman Jesús Ureña.


During the three-day prohibition, the Elections Tribunal becomes the “boss” of the police force, Ureña said, and can send officers out to enforce the alcohol ban and maintain order at polling stations, among other jobs.


“It’s a way of saying TSE is the maximum authority in the country, as far as the police go, on Election Day,” Ureña said.


“It’s not possible to have police offers at all bars, since, unfortunately, there are more establishments that sell liquor in this country than anything else,” Ureña said. However, police keep an eye on bars during their normal patrol to make sure neither business owners nor mischief-doers break any of the seals.


Anyone who breaks the prohibition by selling alcohol faces a fine of up to three times their monthly base salary, said Fernández, and anyone who enters a sealed off area to access alcohol could face two to four years in jail.



A Costa Rican Tradition

Commonly known as the “dry law,” the Election Day prohibition began in 1952, Fernández said, and has since become a Costa Rican tradition. The idea is that voters  aren’t tempted to go to a bar rather than a polling station and to prevent alcohol-induced fighting between supporters of opposing parties.


“Many people buy alcohol in advance and drink at home, but it’s different to be drinking at a private home with friends than to be at a bar where there are people from your (political) party and people from opposing parties,” Fernández said. “There can be problems.”


But some business owners say that in addition to hurting their normal cash flow, the law is unnecessary and outdated.


“This law was created in the old days, when Ticos were less educated and mixing liquor with Election Day was dangerous,” said Mac’s American Bar manager Eddy Barrientos.


“Today, people are more educated and they can talk about politics without fighting.” Economically, the prohibition will be a “huge hit” for Mac’s this year, since Election Day coincides with Super Bowl Sunday and the expat-favored bar usually draws a crowd for the big game, Barrientos said.


Because it is also a restaurant, Mac’s could stay open during the three days, but instead is opting to close and do some maintenance and cleaning.


“I know my clients; a lot of them are retired Gringos,” he said. “They’ll have something to eat, but they also want a beer in their hand.”


Other restaurants in the same predicament are staying open and hoping to tempt sports fans with snacks and non-alcoholic beverages. BillFish Sports Bar and Casino in Byblos Hotel in Quepos, on the central Pacific coast, will offer chicken wings, gourmet pizzas and a big-screen television, said resident owner Pamela Grimm, from Canada.


The prohibition is “really going to put a damper on such a big event down here,” Grimm said. “We’re not happy, but we’ll do the best we can to accommodate everyone who wants to watch the game.”


Club Colonial casino in downtown San José is adopting a similar strategy by offering clients a buffet with snacks and non-alcoholic drinks.


“The law should have exceptions for tourists, who can’t vote,” said Food and Beverage Manager Adrian Vira. “We’re usually sold out for the Super Bowl. We’ll probably lose between $5,000-$10,000.”


Meanwhile, the dry law puts owners of all-inclusive resorts, establishments that charge a flat rate for accommodations, food and drinks, including alcohol, in a particularly difficult position. Refusing to serve alcohol to tourists during three days of their pre-paid vacation would cause serious problems, said a worker at Fiesta Resort and Casino who asked that his name be withheld.


Almost all all-inclusive hotels continue to serve alcohol during the three-day prohibition, he said, though they take a low-key approach and don’t advertise being the only business in the country to serve liquor.


“We take care of things and don’t draw attention,” he said. “We have to give our clients what they paid for. If not, tourism would seriously suffer.” Fiesta Resort has never had any problem with police, he said.


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