FAYETTE, Maine — Camp Winnebago was founded during the Spanish Flu and weathered all manner of health scares from polio to the swine flu over a century. It wasn’t about to let the coronavirus stop the fun.
But things will be different this summer at this camp and others that buck the trend and welcome children. The vast majority of overnight camps are closed due to the pandemic.
Campers were tested five days before arriving and will be tested again five days later. The camp installed additional hand-washing stations on the 150-acre property. Each cabin has hand sanitizer that must be used when entering and leaving, and before and after group activities. Face coverings are required in larger groups.
“We believe that we can run a program safely and with the health of the campers at the top of our minds. We’re not doing this cavalierly. We’re taking this extremely seriously,” Camp Winnebago owner Andy Lilienthal said.
Nationwide, the summer camp picture is coming into sharper focus with many of the 15,000-plus summer camps opting to close because of health concerns surrounding the pandemic, or because of delays in receiving rules or guidelines from licensing officials.
New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Oregon have banned overnight camps, and more than 20 states still haven’t issued guidance for overnight camp directors during what would normally be the start of the busy summer season, according to the American Camp Association.
In Iowa, summer camps are allowed, but most in the area have decided to cancel their sessions for 2020. Camp Wapsie in Coggon had been planning to open later this summer, but this past week changed course and canceled all overnight camps.
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“It is with heavy hearts that we have come to this difficult decision,” YMCA Camp Wapsie Director Paul Denowski said in a news release.
All told, an estimated 19.5 million youths will miss out on either day camp or overnight camp this summer, said Tom Rosenberg of the American Camp Association.
It’s not just a loss for kids who will miss out on seeing friends, becoming independent and developing outdoor skills. It’s a devastating financial loss for camps, some of which won’t recover. Camps are estimated to lose $16 billion in revenue, with more than $4.4 billion in lost wages and over 900,000 lost jobs this summer, Rosenberg said.
In the news release announcing the cancellation of this summer’s sessions, Camp Wapsie’s Denowski acknowledged the financial challenges.
“The economic impact this will have on camp will be felt for years,” he said.
Even camps that do jump through the hoops to open are going to have a tough time. Most of them are losing money but believe strongly in the importance of the camp experience, said Ron Hall of Maine Summer Camps.
A patchwork of safety rules
Camps that consider opening are confronting a hodgepodge of safety rules, some of which were late in coming from states. There is also guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Camp Association.
In Maine, where only 20 of 110 licensed overnight camps are opening, guidelines require staff and counselors to quarantine or receive a negative test result. Campers also must quarantine, or get tested, unless they’re from an exempted state. Campers must be broken up into smaller groups for social distancing. There are rigid guidelines for sanitizing, and an isolation area must be established in the event someone falls ill.
It was all too much for some camps.
In Vermont, Ellen Flight said the decision was made not to open the girls’ Camp Songadeewin and the separate boys camp Keewaydin because the safety of campers could not be assured, especially when they’re camping out.
“When you start thinking about cooking a meal over the fire, you can’t touch the utensils that somebody else touched, you know, you just can’t run a program with any sense of safety,” said Flight, who’s also president of the Vermont Camp Association.
Others are opening but are scaling back.
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In Maine, Camp Winona, in Bridgton, will operate with one session instead of two. Normally, the camp hosts about 220 campers, but this year it will be closer to 150, co-owner Laura Ordway said.
The campers will be divided into groups by age, and then further divided into tents. Smaller groups will eat, sleep and engage in activities together to avoid transmission of the virus to the larger group.
“Camp directors are risk managers, every single day of the camp. We’re also innovative and tenacious,” Ordway said. “I know that there are challenges, but we’ve figured out the safety side of things. Now we have to figure out the logistics so our campers really thrive.”
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