Wall Street Journal/Summer Camp & COVID-19

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Wall Street Journal/Summer Camp & COVID-19

Summer Camps in Northeast Scramble to Deal With Coronavirus Fallout

Camps aim to figure out if they can open, how the safety rules might change and whether parents will send their children

By Leslie Brody, March 25, 2020

With parents and children cooped up in self-isolation in the New York City area, many are dreaming of summer camp to take a break from each other.

But whether camps can open is unclear.

Leaders of sleep-away and day camps say they hope they can operate and will follow the guidance of federal, state and local health authorities as rules may change rapidly. Many say that during the coronavirus crisis, with all of its stress and school closures, children will need the camaraderie, sports and adventures of camp more than ever.

Families of all income levels depend on camps for child care and fun, but many parents are in a wait-and-see mode. Even some campers are leery. That includes 13-year-old Lee Walker Watson in Manhattan, who loves laser tag, trampoline and spy games at his sleep-away camp in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania.

“Right now, in light of what’s happening, I’m not sure I want to go to camp,” he said. “You never know where people have been. If one person has coronavirus, we’ll have to go home anyway.”

Because of registrations before March, some camp leaders say enrollment has remained roughly steady, but they aren’t getting the typical round of calls from parents who waited until spring to make plans. Many parents who signed up early have delayed sending final payments. Some camps are being flexible about deadlines.

Camp leaders say they are preparing for extra scrubbing of facilities and stricter health checks for children and staff, such as taking temperatures regularly. Some hope rapid tests for the virus will be available before opening day, often in late June, to screen everyone before arrival for programs that generally range from one to eight weeks.

Darlene Calton, a director of Camp Netimus, a sleep-away camp for 145 girls in the Poconos, said topic No. 1 with parents at orientation will be how staffers handle infectious disease. “We have protocols for that because once a child gets a cough it can go through camp like wildfire,” she said. “If kids can safely go to camp, they will be knocking down the doors.”

Officials at the American Camp Association, which has more than 3,100 member camps with about 10.4 million campers, say summer camps are a $3.6 billion industry nationwide. They say the virus might delay camps’ openings, bar visiting days, limit children with medical conditions and require extra nursing staff. Concerns about germs might also affect how children get to camp, such as foregoing the use of buses.

Travel restrictions could hamper the hiring of international counselors—often a mainstay because they enjoy summer jobs in America—but domestic college students could be more available due to the cancellation of summer abroad programs, they said.

An association representative said member camps follow safety guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and he hadn’t yet seen any new federal or state directives specifically for summer camps since openings were still months away.

A spokeswoman for the New York Department of Health said that as the camp season approaches, “relevant guidance will be provided as more information concerning COVID19 becomes available.”

Susie Lupert, executive director of the association’s affiliate for New York and New Jersey, said it was especially important now for parents to focus on accredited camps so they can be sure that state health authorities are licensing them and monitoring adherence to standards. Camps have faced infectious diseases before, such as last summer’s measles outbreak, she said: “Camps are used to having curveballs thrown at them.”

New York City’s Department of Education is advertising its free summer day camps for various ages citywide, although its school buildings are closed until at least April 20, with students asked to use remote-learning options. A department spokeswoman said it was too early to predict whether there will be camp changes.

At Keewaydin, a nonprofit camp organization based in Salisbury, Vt., executive director Pete Hare said a former camper had written him a long letter about how facing the unexpected twists of its wilderness canoe trips had helped him deal with the rigors of self-isolation during the pandemic.

Cancellations had been minimal, Mr. Hare said, though some parents in Spain had called saying their children might not be able to fly in.

“The biggest challenge is just being prepared and thinking through all the possible contingencies,” he said. If Keewaydin can’t open, it promised tuition refunds, minus $500 deposits, to parents who paid already. Fees range from $4,675 for four weeks to $9,850 for eight weeks, and some campers get scholarships.

If Keewaydin’s affiliated camps can’t open for their total of nearly 700 campers, the organization would lose about $2 million to $2.5 million this summer. “That’s awful but we would survive,” Mr. Hare said. “We are confident we would weather the storm.”

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