There will be no late-night storytelling, archery lessons or firefly hunts this summer at Camp Tanager.
Tanager Place, which operates the camp in Mount Vernon, said last week the camp will remain closed throughout the season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s really painful,” said Okpara Rice, Tanager Place’s executive director. “Just another loss the kids have.”
Without there being a treatment protocol or a vaccine for COVID-19, Rice said he couldn’t justify opening the camp, which typically hosts nearly 800 campers who attend day camps, overnight camps and medical camps for children with diabetes or hemophilia and other blood disorders.
“You have almost 200 kids out there a week,” Rice said, adding he worried campers might have taken the virus home to their families if it had reopened. “How do you socially distance with that number of kids?”
It’s a question other summer camps have to answer soon: Children have spent nearly all of spring at home. Is that how they will spend summer, too?
As Iowa relaxes restrictions on many businesses and more people begin to venture out, camp directors will make their own choices about whether to welcome kids back this summer and, if they do, if their camp experience will change.
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With some camp sessions starting in a few weeks, directors last week received official guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC documents recommended a camp open only if it would comply with state and local orders, if it is ready to protect high-risk children and staff, and if it can screen children and employees as they arrive.
The American Camp Association is crafting a guidebook for camps as well. A draft of the guidebook recommended that reopening camps order twice as many surface cleaners and disinfectant wipes as normal.
Camp Wapsie, the YMCA of Cedar Rapids Metropolitan Area’s summer camp in Coggon, still is planning to host its first batch of campers June 7.
Extra sanitation stations will be set up around the camp and some activities as well as cabins will be adjusted “to our new normal,” Marketing Director Shannon Brendengen said.
“Luckily, camp is pretty well designed for social distancing measures already,” she said in an email, “as almost all activities are outdoors and spaced out.”
Campers will likely eat in shifts in the dining hall, Camp Wapsie Executive Director Paul Denowski said, and sleep head-to-toe in their bunks.
“We don’t want to take away the camp experience,” Denowski said. “We want to be able to offer that if at all possible, but we want to do it in a good way. Every day we’re talking and meeting and adjusting plans of, what would camp look like if we opened on time?”
More than 1,700 kids typically attend the camp every summer on the banks of the Wapsipinicon River. Attendance ebbs with a weaker economy, Denowski said, and registration slowed in March — around the time the pandemic reached the United States. Until then, registration was on track to be higher than last year.
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“We do not anticipate this year to be a record year for Camp Wapsie,” he said. “We’re just hoping to offer a quality program to as many as we can, as soon as we can.”
Some day camps have opted to cancel their earliest sessions, leaving hope that later camps will go on as normal.
The Grant Wood Area Education Agency canceled the June session of College for Kids, a two-week educational camp at Coe College. More than 460 students were enrolled.
Another 450 kids are signed up for the July session of the camp, where gifted middle school students from dozens of school districts take enrichment courses. The education agency will decide whether to hold the later session virtually or on campus, according to a news release.
Started in 1987, College for Kids has been canceled only once before — during the 2008 floods that overtook Cedar Rapids that summer.
“I know every camp is making the best decision they can for that camp,” Rice, of Tanager Place, said. “It’s hard on everyone. People will have difficult decisions, and I think the community knows this is tough for all organizations.”
At the shuttered Camp Tanager, Rice said he’s hopeful construction on a new lodge and new cabins can move quickly this summer. The new spaces should mean the camp, which offers free sessions to kids from low-income families, can welcome more campers next year.
Until then, only a select few will get to run around the grounds — the children and teenagers who already live together in Tanager Place’s inpatient program.
“They can hop in the van and go out and spend the day,” Rice said. “At least some kids will be able to enjoy camp.”
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