In late May, Costa Rica restricted neighboring Central American carriers from accessing its border check points due to an accelerating outbreak of COVID-19 detected at its border with Nicaragua. In response, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega applied reciprocity measures against Costa Rican carriers following days of border disputes which caused severe cargo disruptions and stranded thousands of carriers. After two rounds of negotiation, members of the Central American Integration System (SICA) passed a new regional protocol for cross-border cargo transportation with the aim of regional virus containment. All members of the trading bloc, which includes Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and Dominican Republic as an Associate Member, are required to adhere to the new guidelines.
Extended health screening at border checkpoints
The protocol requires international cargo carriers and passengers to undergo an initial screening and subsequent medical examination at border posts. This screening will analyze drivers’ reported travel history and recent contacts. The examination will record body temperatures of carrier personnel and determine the presence of COVID-19 symptoms. Individuals exhibiting such symptoms, including a temperature of more than 38 degrees Celsius, a sustained cough, shortness of breath, loss of smell or taste, or gastrointestinal issues, will be immediately isolated at the point of entry and required to quarantine.
According to the protocol, the driver will not be permitted to continue the trip but must receive adequate health care and isolated lodging until a replacement driver arrives. Additionally, the vehicle and cargo will undergo sanitation processes. Each member state has the option to include a rapid COVID-19 test during the border medical examination. If the medical examination concludes with a negative COVID-19 result, carriers will receive an authorization document which will expedite their transit through the next border check. The guidelines recommend that countries which decide to include the rapid COVID-19 test should “apply them in a systematic, random, or risk-based manner”. This will ensure that delivery times are maintained and cargo mobility and vital services are unaffected.
Further, freight transport companies must train employees on COVID-19 sanitation processes and promote and implement prevention measures. Companies must also maintain records of the completed training. Any new measure or modification to land border controls and procedures must be coordinated with other regional authorities to properly define institutional processes and roles.
Cargo carriers await clearance
Although the new guidelines intend to make border checks for cargo transporters quicker and more efficient, the enhanced measures have caused significant delays throughout the region. On June 8, over 900 cargo carriers were stranded at the Peña Blanca post on the border with Costa Rica and Nicaragua due to the application of rapid COVID-19 testing implemented by Costa Rican authorities on each cargo carrier. Many carriers have reportedly returned to their home countries with undelivered goods.
Cargo carriers should expect significant delays at Central American border posts in the near-to-medium-term, especially at the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border. As the SICA protocol evolves, transport companies should continue to monitor policy changes which will impact border crossing wait times. It is recommended to maintain all health documentation after each medical examination to ensure faster processing through each border post.