Summer camps prepare to open with sweeping changes for coronavirus

It may not be the first industry anyone has thought of amidst the economic devastation triggered by coronavirus, but summer camps have watched the pandemic unfold with a specific fear: that camp might not open. 

“We dealt with H1N1 and SARS, we had cases of both, but I never in my 40 years of working in camps was worried about whether camp would open at all,” says Mark Lipof, director of Camp Micah in Bridgton, Maine. “And that is terrible, and all camp people are thinking the same thing.”

Most sleepaway camps, as of now, are saying they do intend to open—with extreme changes to their usual structures in order to safeguard campers and staff. 

Those changes will make many camps look very different: eight-week and seven-week camps possibly shrinking their season to five weeks or four weeks; testing staff and campers when they arrive; hiring extra medical staff; fully isolating camp for the whole summer, which means no outdoor trips, no intercamp sports, and no staff nights out; adding extra meal shifts to have fewer kids in the dining hall at once; and potentially shrinking the number of beds per bunk. Such changes will end up costing most camps more, even with a shorter season, but it beats the alternative. 

Summer camp is an $18 billion industry that serves more than 20 million kids and employs more than 1 million people each summer, according to the American Camp Association (ACA), a nonprofit industry group with more than 3,000 member camps all over the country. 

As some states like Florida, Georgia, and Texas are already beginning to reopen their economies, the camp landscape will not look uniform nationally: some states already know they can have camp go on as usual, while other states have to wait and see.

Campers watch a marine science demonstration on July 11, 2017, at Fish Camp in South Portland, which is closing after its 39th summer. (Derek Davis/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images.)

Maine is home to the oldest camps; it has the most 100-year-old camps in the country, and they are some of the most expensive, with tuition ranging from $800 to $1,800 per week (nearly $13,000 for the summer at some of the highest-end camps). Around 40,000 kids go to camp in Maine every summer, according to the nonprofit Maine Summer Camps (MSC), and Maine camps have an estimated $200 million economic impact on the state each year, so it behooves the state to give camps the green light for this summer. 

Aiming to decide by May 15

With U.S. coronavirus cases now heavily concentrated on the East Coast, Maine camps are particularly anxious as they await official camp guidelines from the state and the CDC, widely expected to come by May 1. Based on that timing, many Maine camps expect to make final decisions on whether and when they’ll open by May 15, since that’s around when they have to start placing bulk orders of food and supplies.

Some camps didn’t want to wait in order to share their thinking with parents. Camp Takajo, an all-boys camp in Naples, Maine, already notified parents that they can opt for a full refund if camp doesn’t open, or even if camp opens but they don’t feel comfortable sending their kids this summer. (Not all camps have that luxury; some plan to encourage parents to put their tuition toward next year.) “I didn’t want this decision to be driven by finances,” says Takajo owner Jeff Konigsberg, who also owns the all-girls camp Tripp Lake in Poland, Maine.

Konigsberg has also already told parents his plan is to delay the start of both camps to July 11, according to an email a Takajo parent shared with Yahoo Finance. (Most camps usually start around June 21.) Even with camp condensed to five weeks, he says he’ll compensate staff for the usual full season.

U.S. coronavirus cases as of Apr. 29, 2020. (David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

Anxiety over different approaches

Maine camp owners and directors are on weekly Zoom calls in which they discuss the latest news and share their updated thinking. Some are concerned that the guidelines coming from the state and the CDC won’t give a clear “yes” or “no” but will leave it up to the individual camps to make their own choice about opening. That will mean some camps open and some don’t.

“There are already camps that have said they’re definitely opening, and that was stupid, because the guidelines aren’t out yet,” says Lipof of Camp Micah. “If you open camp, and others don’t, and you wind up having to close, then you’re an idiot and everyone else is smart. The flip side is if almost everybody doesn’t open, and a few do and they have a fine summer, then the rest of us look like we were wrong. So there’s a lot of anxiety with not just our own own decision, but what the rest of the industry does.”

Some of the changes required to open this summer could be cost-prohibitive for many camps. “We are approaching the summer assuming we’ll have the virus at camp,” says Konigsberg of Camp Takajo. That means planning to isolate some campers or staff within the already-isolated camp.

There’s also the likelihood international staff won’t be able to fly to the U.S. in time for the start of camp; many camps hire a large number of staff from countries like Poland. “We are not expecting to get our international staff,” says Konigsberg. “If flights open up, we would love to get some of these guys back. But we are getting some terrific counselors from the U.S. instead, some of whom were not able to commit earlier because they had internships or jobs lined up, and now some of those internships or jobs have fallen by the wayside.” Then there’s the issue of getting the kids to camp safely in the first place: Jay Jacobs, owner of Timber Lake Camp in New York, says he is considering chartering a private plane to bring campers from Florida.

Another pain point is the possibility that Maine will say camps can open but with no activities that involve groups of 50 or more. That rule alone might be a deal-breaker for some camps, since it means no assemblies or other all-camp gatherings. 

“Camp is the opposite of social distancing,” says Lipof.

On April 28, Maine Gov. Janet Mills released her plan to restart Maine’s economy. It involves a Stage 1 starting on May 1 that still prohibits gatherings of 10 or more people and encourages anyone who can work from home to continue doing so; Stage 2, starting on June 1, would allow gatherings of up to 50 people, but not more than 50 people; Stage 3, starting on July 1, still “contemplates maintaining the prohibition on gatherings of more than 50 people” but would “allow for some degree of opening for” summer camps. 

That update still “does not begin to have the answers that Maine camps need,” says Ron Hall, executive director of Maine Summer Camps, so camps are still waiting for further guidance from the state. The governor’s office did not return a request for comment from Yahoo Finance.

What is clear is that parents, generally, want camp to happen. Most directors and owners say they haven’t had cancelations yet, apart from a few parents of children with preexisting health conditions.

“If camps can open, it’s really important to the reemergence into society that kids are going to be doing,” says Hall. “Camps provide a great environment for kids to grow and develop social skills, develop independence, and those will all be really good assets for them to have when they reenter school in the fall.”

Disclosure: The author worked as a counselor at Camp Micah for one summer in 2007.

Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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