Camps are Opening, Thanks to Collaboration and Commitment
Kids plunging into lakes, hiking Maine’s mountains, playing sports and making art. And, foremost, connecting with beloved camp peers and role models. It’s all back. In the coming days, thousands of youngsters will once again join friends and mentors in what many call their second home. Once again, Maine youth camps are opening.
The majority of youth camps suspended their 2020 seasons. Now, having navigated a shifting landscape of pandemic protocols based on federal CDC guidelines, camp directors are committed to giving kids exactly what they need: time to play, connect, learn and unplug. In other words, the Maine camp experience that has helped children thrive for more than a century.
It’s a given that COVID-19’s challenges have been extraordinary. For Maine youth camps, those challenges began as soon as the pandemic began in March 2020, with the decision of whether opening last summer was possible. For many camps – indeed for all but about two dozen – it meant making the excruciating choice to suspend their seasons. Most camps were simply unable to put in place the kinds of modifications required to fulfill every camp’s top priority: camper health and safety. Physical space limitations, programmatic challenges, and financial factors were among the considerations that necessitated these decisions.
The impact was vast. Like many seasonal small businesses, youth camps earn their revenue almost entirely during the summer camp season. It’s a multi-million dollar industry and for camps, losing that income – particularly considering camps have year-round expenses – was devastating. PPP loans, dipping deep into savings, and borrowing money helped most camps stay afloat. But for many, suspending a second season could have ended camp operations.
Maine youth camps also have a vast impact on the state’s economy, bringing hundreds of millions of dollars to the state each summer. Families plan vacations around their children’s camp attendance, travel to the state for camp visiting days, and spend millions on camp tuition itself. The state would have suffered dramatically from another suspended summer as well. Maine’s camping industry had an economic impact on the state of more than $490 million in 2019; in 2020 the impact was below $200 million.
Some camps did open last summer, with modified programming, strict health and safety protocols, and altered attendance schedules. Camps began their seasons in July, shortened their sessions, limited their capacity. Camp staff members lived in their “camp bubble,” quarantining on the camp property for two weeks prior to campers’ arrival, and not leaving the property until the season concluded.
Fast forward to today. After a full year of planning, camp directors are ready and waiting and as excited as their campers to begin the summer season.
How did camps get to this point? What made it possible for the Maine camping industry to lay the groundwork for best ensuring camper health and safety and find itself as a leader nationwide in managing the implications of COVID-19?
First, camps collaborated. Ron Hall, executive director of Maine Summer Camps, a nonprofit organization that represents more than 150 member camps says one key is the spirit of collegiality among camps.
“Last fall, after the 26 camps that operated at reduced capacity in 2020 the camp directors were exuberant that their summer was so successful and exhausted from the endless work that it took to make happen,” Hall explained in an email. “But rather than put their feet up and finally relax, they spent the fall sharing their experiences with the 120 camps that didn’t open.”
That sharing was vast and generous. Camps participated in more than 10 Zoom workshops and “office hours,” in discussions about what worked for them, and what they would change for 2021.
“In great part, these workshops gave all of our camps the information they needed to start preparing for the summer of 2021,” Hall said. “In the next two weeks close to 150 MSC camps will be welcoming happy campers.”
Maine Summer Camps’ mission of supporting Maine camps through education and legislative advocacy and information was in full display in other efforts as well. Hall says the organization provided Q & A sessions for day camps, small nonprofit camps and larger private overnight camps. Webinars throughout the winter and spring – conducted by health professionals, child psychologists, insurance experts, even food suppliers – approached camps’ concerns and questions from every angle, Hall says. All of MSC webinars and information sessions were open to all Maine camps, not just MSC members.
Among those professionals was Laura Blaisdell, MD, MPH, FAAP, a public health expert and practicing pediatrician. Blaisdell worked with the state and American Camp Association in establishing guidance for camps’ preparations in dealing with testing, non-pharmaceutical interventions (such as masking and distancing), best practices for keeping camps safe, and how to manage COVID-19 cases at camp.
“She was a frequent presenter in our webinars and was an invaluable resource for our organization,” Hall said.
Maine’s camping industry also benefited from MSC’s longtime relationship with officials at the state level, Hall says. The organization has a “productive working relationship” with the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD), which was responsible for official guidance for camps during the pandemic, he says.
“We were able to reach out with concerns, suggestions and questions. Maine summer camps are very lucky to have state leaders who are so supportive of summer youth camps.” And MSC continues to work with Maine’s Health Inspection Program, which inspects and licenses youth camps, Hall said.
As more than 150 MSC member camps prepare to welcome campers over the next two weeks, they will draw on the information and planning made possible by the spirit of community inherent in the Maine camping industry and the leadership and educational opportunities of Maine Summer Camps.
“Maine has been recognized nationally for their work in helping camps across the country provide a safe experience in a pandemic,” Hall says.
Here in Maine, joyful campers – and camp directors – will benefit firsthand from that expertise.