Under Mills Administration Guidance, Summer Camps In Maine Will Look Very Different This Year

May 21, 2020

As Maine heads toward Stage 2 of the state's plan to reopen the economy during the coronavirus pandemic, the Mills administration has issued guidance for summer camps. For some camps, it's provided the make-or-break decision about whether to open this summer. Those that have decided to move forward are preparing for a very different experience.

Credit Rebecca Conley / Maine Public

The guidance issued by the Mills administration Wednesday was a sort of reckoning for Matt Pines, co-owner of Maine Teen Camp, a sleepaway camp in Porter. Maine Teen Camp draws kids from across the United States and the globe. For weeks, Pines has been wrestling over what to do this summer. After he read through the state's requirements, he made the tough decision to not open, and he notified campers.

"We knew we would, but we broke their hearts when we told them that they can't be together this summer," says Pines.

The guidance issued by the state requires a 14-day quarantine for out-of-state campers before they arrive and prohibits international campers. Activities that involve physical contact are discouraged, as are singing and yelling because they increase the spread of respiratory droplets. Pines says that when he looked at all the changes Maine Teen Camp would have to make, he came to a disappointing conclusion: "If we implement that, that's not going to look like camp for us. It would be such a different experience."

The changed experience, combined with the challenge of potentially managing campers who could become sick from the novel coronavirus, was a deal-breaker.

Guidance for camps provides a workaround because it allows so called 'household' groups that stick together and avoid direct contact with others.
Credit Camp Ketcha File Photo

But other camps will open, even though, as Laura Ordway of Winona Camps in Bridgton says, everything will be different.

"Everything about the physical aspect of camp, how the day is run, how meals are served, how activities move forward, all of those items are changing,” Ordway says. “It's as if we're building a camp from scratch with simply just the outline of the camp that we have had before."

Winona Camps is dropping one of its two sessions and reducing its numbers from 325 people to 200. Camp will be divided into groups that avoid direct contact, and then those groups will be narrowed into pods.

"And so those tent pods will be made up of three or four tents, so no more than 15 or 18 more people in a pod, which makes up the equivalent of a household."

Group size was one of the major hurdles that camps faced for the summer, because the state's reopening plan limits gatherings to no more than 50 people from June through August. But the guidance for camps provides a workaround because it allows so-called 'household' groups that stick together and avoid direct contact with others.

"The kids that are going to those camps are essentially going to be in a bubble."

Ron Hall is the executive director of Maine Summer Camps, which represents 147 camps. He says the guidance issued by the state was not a surprise because it was developed with input from his organization. But it still doesn't work for everyone.

"I would say one-third of the camps have decided not to reopen."

The decision sometimes boils down to the nature of their set up. Tom Doherty runs the Camp Ketcha day camp in Scarborough.

"We have a lot of outdoor space. We have 107 acres, so we can keep kids spread apart."

Camp Ketcha also has multiple buildings, which will make it easier to group kids together. Some programs are cancelled, like horseback riding and a preschool camp. And doherty says campers may have to forego some traditions, like singing songs at the end of each day, because of the potential spread of respiratory droplets. But he thinks the essence of the experience will still be meaningful.

"No one sends their kid to camp to learn to shoot an arrow. That's really not — I mean, you go to camp to learn to be a friend."

And he says parents are clamoring for it.

"Parents have been clear with me that they want camp for their kids, and they're worried about their development."

Even though he won't open, Matt Pines of Maine Teen Camp is rooting for those that do. A successful experience this season, he says, will pave the way for all camps to reopen next summer.

This story is part of our series “Deep Dive: Coronavirus.” For more in the series, visit mainepublic.org/coronavirus.