- As some camps decide to shut their doors more and more campers will be home for the summer, counselors could be jobless, and the $18 billion industry will take a major financial hit this season.
- Many parents are eager to get their kids outdoors, but camp directors are concerned about campers' health and safety.
- "I would say that 90% of the parents I've spoken to have a lot of trust in us and they say, 'If you guys can safely open, please take our kids,'" one camp director told us.
- One family we talked to improvised a solution: enrolling their kids in an online camp and planning outdoor activities they can do together.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories .
After nearly two months of quarantine during the coronavirus pandemic, kids across the country are eager to get outside for summer. But for more than 7.2 million kids who attend summer camps each year, getting outdoors could prove more challenging than usual especially when it comes to camps.
American summer camps are an $18 billion industry . But this year, the impact of COVID-19 is not only damaging summer camps' revenues, it's threatening the livelihood of camp employees and a yearly opportunity for children to learn and participate in outdoor experiences with their peers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released guidance for camps nationwide. The guidelines included a decision tree to help camp directors decide whether they should consider opening, and if so, how to do it safely. But ultimately, state and local officials have the final say on reopening guidelines for camps.
Some camps already decided to shut their doors for the summer and absorb the financial loss, but many are still waiting to receive guidance from local health departments and state officials as to whether they will be permitted to open for the summer. And if they are given the green light, answers for how to operate their camps in as safe away as possible.
The American Camp Association, the only organization that accredits camps with national standards of health and safety, has more than 3,100 summer camps under its umbrella. This year, the organization is operating as an educational resource for camps more than ever, providing camp directors with information about COVID-19 and guidance on what protocols to implement.
Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association, said camp openings will not be uniform across the country, but rather a patchwork of operational levels depending on each state and county's decisions.
"Once states can define timelines and rules on how to operate, camp directors have to decide if they can operate with the adaptations," Rosenberg told Business Insider.
Fever screenings, COVID-19 testing, and forms of social distancing would be key modifications.
But with some camps already closing or planning to operate in modified capacities, families are being forced to rethink their summer plans.
Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, director of the National Ramah Commission, a network of Jewish summer camps and travel programs, has worked in the industry for 40 years. Cohen said his top priority is the health and safety of campers and their families.
"We have to answer the question, should we open our summer camps? Can we ethically and safely open our summer camps? And that is an open question right now," Cohen said.
If Ramah camps were to remain closed, Cohen said there would be significant financial losses, but no camp in the system would be at risk of permanently shutting down.
"We're a seasonal product and all of our sales are based on delivering a product in the summer," Cohen said. "But we spend money year-round."
Cohen says shutting camps this summer would save some operational costs, but the system's 3,000 seasonal workers would be jobless and 250 full-time staff members could face pay cuts, furloughs, or layoffs.
Ramah camps also rely on a large portion of international employees, and even if camps open, many staff members would not be able to travel to the US unless travel restrictions were lifted.
But Cohen and his staff, like many camps, are developing a series of plans to implement if camps reopen, which could include smaller camp sessions with fewer students.
"We're in a real gut-wrenching process right now with all of our leadership trying to analyze whether we can come up with a form of camp for this summer that attempts to screen out the virus as much as possible, and that disallows any children or adults with vulnerabilities," Cohen said.
But Cohen says preventing at-risk campers and employees from attending camp threatens one of the key values of Camp Ramah inclusion.
"We try to include people from all socioeconomic backgrounds, we have these Tikvah programs for children and young adults with all sorts of developmental disabilities," Cohen said. "We're very proud of how inclusive we are."
That's why families have built trust with Camp Ramah, Cohen said, and any decision the camp makes will need to strive to preserve that trust.
"I would say that 90% of the parents I've spoken to have a lot of trust in us and they say, 'If you guys can safely open, please take our kids,'" Cohen said.
Families deal with camp closures, improvise solutions
Parents such as Jeremy and Nina Price were a pair eager to send their 15-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter to summer camp.
"Camp does a great job of making sure that all campers' needs are met, and that there's a variety of different activities, physical, social, emotional, intellectual all those needs being met," Nina Price said.
But with both of their children's summer camps closed, Jeremy and Nina Price are improvising alternatives and leading a family camp at home as well as enrolling their kids in an online version of Concordia Language Villages summer camp.
Camps such as Concordia Language Villages are offering online versions of camp at reduced prices.
"I think one of the concerns I have is how can you create opportunities for them that are not on screens," Nina Price said.
That's why the Price family is creating their family camp with a schedule for outdoor bonding activities like family walks and gardening.
But as June draws nearer camp directors are anxious to receive guidance from authorities.
Jim Mazzaferro, camp and artistic director of Cazadero Music Camp in Cazadero, California, said all that he can do is wait.
"I just wish somebody would make a decision one way or another," Mazzaferro said. "I wish the county would come out, I wish the powers that be would say, 'You can have summer camp, here are the restrictions,' or 'You can't have a summer camp.'"
If canceled, Cazadero Music Camp, like many camps including Ramah, will offer families the option to rollover payments to summer 2021, donate all or part of their payment to the camp, or request a refund.
Mazzaferro said canceling the summer could hurt the camp financially, but not insurmountably.
"I know the redwood trees have been there, they were there before me and they'll be there after me," Mazzaferro said. "And I think I feel the same way about the camp."
Is your child's summer camp closed? Is your family creating alternatives for summer camp? Email Jessica Snouwaert at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your story.
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