Can You Buy Alcohol in Bocas del Toro?

Yes and no.  Right now, it depends on which store you go to. Some stores are selling and have been officially selling since the national ban was lifted on Friday May 8th at 3:45pm.  Others are currently not selling alcohol.  There is much of a debate at the local, provincial and national level and some confusion among vendors and consumers.

Alcohol was first banned on March 25 when President Laurentino Cortizo declared a state of national emergency and passed the Executive Decree 507.  After over a month of the nation not being able to lawfully sell or consume alcoholic beverages, the Ministry of Health announced the gradual lifting of the “dry law” during a May 6th press conference.  Alcohol was to be limited to one bottle of wine or a single six-pack of beer per person, purchases could not be made as part of the “bono solidario” $80 government voucher program and all alcohol would be for home consumption as quarantine rules still apply.

Executive Decree 612 was passed just before 4pm on Friday May 8, allowing the distribution, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages nation-wide, in all areas without a “cerco sanitario,” which are the districts with very high amounts of COVID-19 that are conducting health check points.  The lifting of the alcohol ban was met with mixed reactions from government, business and the general population.

On one hand, the producers of alcohol support lifting the ban because they have a massive amount of product inventory that is about to expire, resulting in a revenue loss.  The alcohol industry also employs thousands of people and generates a lot of tax revenue, which is why the national government and some municipalities are for it.  Supporters of lifting the dry law also cite that alcohol is still being sold on the black market at inflated prices and with no taxes being collected.

Against the lifting of the ban on alcohol are a majority of Panama’s mayors and a lot of social media users following the news.  Many Panamanians are questioning people’s abilities to properly manage their finances by spending too much money on alcohol while out of work and doubting drinker’s abilities to be respecting social distancing norms while under the influence.  The other major concern is the increase of instances of violence and disorderly conduct.  Constituents and mayors alike in a majority of the regional districts questioned the net benefit of introducing legal alcohol sales and consumption to the Panamanian population and certainly made their voices heard.

Some mayors wasted no time in acting and passed local decrees extending the ban on alcohol in their municipality, the legality of which is in question. However, the Panamanian constitution establishes that municipalities with the laws, decrees and executive orders, to which these are enforced by the National Police.  On May 7th AMUPA (Association of Panamanian Municipalities) expressed their disagreement with the suspension of the prohibition on alcohol.  The mayors stated that many districts have “very few police units” available to respond to complaints and they feel the lifting of the dry law will incite an increase in domestic violence and public disorder.

As of May 11, the ban on alcohol is still lifted nation-wide, with exceptions to the districts with high amounts of COVID-19 cases that have implemented “sanitary fences”, or checkpoints where people’s temperature is checked.  The debate between the central government and mayors continues.

At the May 8 press conference, the Minister of Health, Rosario Turner, said that they will be monitoring the “faithful compliance with Decree 612”, which establishes the flexibility of the dry law. She warned that if this measure is breached, “it will return to a total ban.”

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