Confusion reigned in West End February 23 as Honduras’s new Sunday “dry law” (Ley Seca) went into effect for the first time. Authorities sent mixed signals, and rumors flowed more freely than the supposedly prohibited booze.
The new law, adopted shortly after the inauguration of new Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez in late January, prohibits the sale of alcohol in Honduras between 5 p.m. Sunday and 7 a.m. Monday, purportedly as a way to reduce the Mainland’s notoriously high crime rate. But as the 5 O’Clock hour approached on the first Sunday of its entry into force, affected business owners in Roatan’s most popular tourist enclave were unclear about whether and how the law would be applied for the Bay Islands.
“It’s ambiguous at best,” said William Brown, who was tending bar at the Coconut Tree in West End just before 5:30 p.m. “Some are closed. … Others are staying open until told otherwise by the police.”
Brown’s boss, Vincent Bush Jr., said he had received nothing in writing from the Municipal Government concerning a change in closing hours, which he said would be the normal procedure. Until he did, he said he planned to stay open as usual. (Brown later told us a police officer entered the establishment around 8 p.m. and told them to stop serving alcohol).
Some business owners reported having been told the police had received no instructions from Tegucigalpa about enforcing the law. Others reported hearing about exceptions for tourist resorts or for specific locations.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a Ley Seca for the whole island,” said Joe Solomon, chief of the Roatan Municipal Police, contacted by phone Tuesday. Solomon said the Municipal Police issued citations to several businesses February 23 for serving alcohol after 5 p.m. but did not order any businesses to close.
“The law does not say you gotta close anybody down,” said Solomon. “It just says you can’t sell.”
Solomon acknowledged there was confusion about the rules this first time around but said authorities would get together February 27 to “figure out how to operate” going forward. He did not think exemptions for specific localities or types of establishments would be workable, though.
“If you exempt a certain sector, you gotta exempt the whole city,” he said.
Victor Moncada of Zolitur, which administers tax preferences and other special policies for the Bay Islands, said a group of mayors from municipalities that depend heavily on tourism were lobbying in Tegucigalpa for a general exception to the law.
Meanwhile, tourists who happened to arrive on the island as the law took effect were taken by surprise.
“We just heard about this,” said Mark Latta of Denver, who was enjoying a round of coconut tequila shots at a West End bar at 6:30 p.m. with Brad Knopp of northern Quebec, whom he had just met the night before.
“Tonight we were going out for drinks and then dinner,” said Knopp, and eliminating the “drinks” part would “put a damper” on things. Nonetheless, neither of the two, both on dive holidays, said they would have canceled their trips to Roatan had they known about the dry law in advance.
“I think I would have planned a little bit better,” said Knopp, like arriving on a Monday and leaving the following Sunday.
Still, the dry law was having a noticeable effect on certain West End businesses on its first night of applicability.
The Nova Bar just before 7 p.m. was offering its usual Sunday barbecue, but serving only soft drinks and juice to accompany. There were no customers.
“I see all these tourists that are wandering around, and lots of them are surprised they can’t find any alcohol,” said Mike Slimmons, who took over Nova with his partner, Christopher Laidal, just three weeks earlier. “Three flights came in today.”
Further down the road, the Barefeet Bar canceled its popular Sunday night dance party, was serving only food and soft drinks and had only a smattering of diners at 7:45.
“We stopped serving alcohol at 4 O’Clock just to be safe,” said Roland Brooks, a waiter at Barefeet. “There was some people here they say that they extended it for the islands, the islands was free to serve alcohol. But we didn’t take no chances.” He said National Police had been around earlier in the evening to check on them.
“It’s crazy,” said Ronnie Grant, proprietor of Barefeet, “because we got a lot of tourists coming in. People over there (adjacent condos) just arrived for the first time and they got no clue where they goin’… People want to go out and eat and drink.”
However, Alex Madrid, chief of National Police for the Bay Islands, standing in front of El Boske with two of his officers up the road around 7 p.m., said he was taking a lenient approach to the new law.
“We’re doing our work as normal,” said Madrid, “but trying not to affect the common good of either investors or tourists.”
Madrid said the law prohibiting liquor sales after 5 p.m. had to be considered together with the tourism law, which calls for special treatment for special areas like West End. “If you come here as a tourist, you don’t arrive armed; you don’t come looking for trouble. You come to enjoy yourself,” Madrid said. “The situation for the tourist has not changed. The tourist can keep having fun.”
Madrid said the National Police had flexibility to determine how and when to enforce the law according to circumstances. The dry law, he said, was aimed at areas of high crime, and the Bay Islands were not a high-crime area.
Madrid also said it was the responsibility of the Municipal Police, not the National Police, to enforce the law. But Chief Solomon of the Municipal Police said the two forces shared responsibility.
“Everybody’s trying to wash their hands of this thing,” said Solomon.
Meanwhile, at Tita’s Pink Seahorse in the Sueño del Mar resort, across the bridge from Barefeet, a mixture of expats and resort guests filled the barstools at 9 p.m. enjoying beers and mixed drinks. There was a capacity crowd up the road at the Café Escondido, above West End Divers, at 9:30, and a couple stragglers were observed downing beers at Sundowners.
However, at 10 p.m. sharp (the normal Sunday closing time), Escondido was closing and its patrons were pouring out into the street. Some attempted to buy beers to take home from a nearby mini-market, but the market was closed. A few were overheard discussinhg going to Island Saloon, 12 km away, on the other side of Coxen Hole, to see whether it was still open (we were later told it was not). All grew quiet on the West End.
On the second dry Sunday, March 2, compliance on Roatan was more uniform. Almost all businesses in West End were closed by 7 p.m., except for a few restaurants. The following Sunday, March 9, bars were being boarded up at 4:55, and the strip was taking on a ghostly appearance, augmented by a 7:30 power outage. Only El Boske appeared to be doing a normal business.
There were still rumors circulating at press time that tourist areas might be exempted from the new law. A source told us mayors of Tela, La Ceiba, Copan and other Honduran cities that depend heavily on tourism were lobbying for such a carve-out. But for the time being, Sundays are to be dry in paradise.