For more than 100 years, kids have flocked to summer camps in Maine to play in the woods, swim in a lake, forge new friendships and find a bit of freedom from their lives back home. But the new coronavirus is casting a cloud of uncertainty over how sleepaway camps might operate this summer — if at all.
As camp directors plan for possible scenarios, some parents are holding out hope that this formative experience for kids can be preserved — even during a pandemic.
We've all had to adapt to changes prompted by the new coronavirus — wearing masks, quarantines, physical distancing — but how might these changes apply to summer camps?
That is something that is cycling through many camp director's minds, including Peter Slovenski, as he walks on a wooded path on the grounds of Slovenski Camps. It is a co-ed camp perched on the shores of Panther Pond in Raymond. The trail ends at a grassy athletic field.
"This is our field, and we play a lot of great games out here, but social distancing would be really tough in the field games. We have capture the flag where we run and tag kids, and I guess if you get within six feet of a kid you’re tagged?"
How to run field games while maintaining social distancing is one of the countless questions that Slovenski asks himself as he considers Gov. Janet Mills' four-stage plan to reopen the economy.
"Our first view of the guidelines is they’re going to be very challenging for a summer camp to open, and maybe impossible."
Kids who go to Slovenski Camps sign up for one-week sessions and about half come from out of state. Under Mills' current plan, those campers would need to quarantine for 14 days as soon as they enter Maine, and gatherings of 50 or more people are prohibited throughout the summer. Slovenski says he usually has 100 campers at each session.
"Very, very few summer camps are small enough to gather only 50 people. You’ve got staff and campers, so that would be something like a camp of 40 campers and 10 staff members. The economics of that are really going to be tough."
Slovenski isn't the only one who's worried. Ron Hall is the Executive Director of Maine Summer Camps, which represents more than 140 licensed youth camps in Maine, about 70 percent of which are overnight. He says the camp directors and owners he has spoken to are stressed.
"They're worried about their campers, they're worried about their finances, they're worried about what's going to happen this summer."
Even though camps operate just eight weeks out of the year, they have fixed expenses 12 months of the year. And lost tuition not only affects camps, but the state. Hall says camps contribute $200 million a year directly and indirectly to the Maine economy. Close to two-dozen camps in Maine have already decided not to open for the summer. Some that remain in limbo say demand is still strong.
"Well the camp has a full enrollment right now." But, in order to open, says Laura Ordway, the co-owner and director of Winona Camps in Bridgton, "pretty much every aspect of camp will have to change. That's the one thing that is clear right now."
Ordway says the biggest challenges most camps face center around one of the hallmarks of the experience: closeness. Kids sit shoulder to shoulder at meal times and campfires. They sleep head to foot in tents and cabins. But Ordway says there is a potential workaround to both crowd limits and quarantine requirements.
"We would have to have clear guidelines from the state that they would allow a residential summer camp to be cohorted as a large group, almost in place of a single family home."
In other words, the camp would quarantine as a whole once campers arrive. Or, maybe in smaller groups, says Andy Lilienthal. He is the owner and director of Camp Winnebago in Fayette. Lilienthal wonders if he could group staff and campers into cohorts of 50 or fewer.
"So that we could have a group of 50 in a separate area of camp, and they could be working as a unit and not interact with the other campers or staff that would be in another area of camp."
It's a summer during which activities would likely be centered at camp — no special day trips to the tidal pools at Pemaquid Point or hikes on Mt. Battie. And, of course, there would be close monitoring of campers’ health. Lilientha acknowledges that, if he is able to, opening camp this summer is not a risk-free proposition.
"And I'm not, by nature, a risky person. But, at the same time, I do understand the importance of what an experience at camp can mean for a child usually."
And from what he is hearing from parents, he says, this season is especially important.
"The general refrain for me is 'please, God, let camp happen. I want you to take my child. They really need camp this summer.’"
Kelly Farrell of New York has a 16-year old son who's ready to go to camp in Maine this summer.
"The beacon has been camp."
Beacon’s son is a junior in high school, and he has already lost his spring sports, dances and other events.
"It's just this light he's been looking forward to. It's providing him sort of inspiration and even the fortitude to go on. He's been home since March 12. He hasn't left the house but to walk the dog or go for a run and, for him, camp is sort of what's keeping him going right now."
Kate Egan of Brunswick is also hoping her teenage son and her daughter can go to camp. They've attended Slovenski Camps for years, and her daughter is now a counselor. Egan says her kids talk about camp every day.
"You know, with all the losses that they've kind of racked up over the year, losing camp would be one of the hardest."
Even if the experience this summer is different, says Egan.
On Thursday, Mills said in a news briefing that she cannot make any promises, but her administration is trying to find a way for camps to open safely.
Originally published 5:23 p.m. May 8, 2020.