By Janet Reynolds
Children and parents everywhere have been getting the bad news in recent weeks as summer overnight camps in the Adirondacks began alerting them that the summer they had hoped to spend doing anything but sheltering in place is no longer an option.
The final number of Adirondack camps that will remain closed due to COVID-19 is unknown. It changes almost daily as camp directors and boards of directors realize that operating safely under Centers for Disease Control and state pandemic reopening requirements—as well as guidelines from the American Camp Association—will make it impossible to create the camp experience they want, and may be financially prohibitive.
“We looked at all conceivable options we could think of,” says Katrina Dearden, assistant executive director and camp director at Camp Eagle Island,” and we couldn’t think of a safe way to run the program the way we identify it.”
Camp Eagle Island just reopened as an all-gender day camp in the summer of 2019 after being closed for 11 years. This summer was to be the summer of expansion for the former Girl Scout camp on Upper Saranac Lake, with an overnight camp for girls, a family camp, and a women’s wellness weekend all planned to begin in addition to the day camp. Day camp is also canceled.
“You have to take a pontoon boat to get to camp,” says Dearden. “Not sure how you can socially distance on a pontoon.”
“When I send kids out paddling across the late there’s risk, but I know the water, the lake and their training. I can quantify that risk,” says Kent Busman, executive director of Camp Fowler, which announced at the end of April it would not open this summer. “But this is a risk I have no metric for. There’s no way of knowing what’s going to happen.”
The impact of the closures goes beyond the personal disappointment of the families and the camp owners. Summer camps are a critical cog in the Adirondack summer tourism economic engine. Each closure additionally hurts a local economy already in distress as everything from hotels and restaurants to local vendors providing food and services faces an uncertain season. Busman estimates Camp Fowler’s personal economic footprint for the Lake Pleasant area to be about $100,000. And that’s just one camp.
The American Camp Association Northeast Region’s economic impact study notes that New York camps employ 60,000 seasonal workers and 3,500 full-time workers, who receive more than $411 million in wages. Besides payroll, New York camps spend more than $1.2 billion on goods and services including food, supplies, fuel, marketing, banking, maintenance and repair. New York State camps attract 129,000 out-of-state visitors who spend $42 million annually. Combining payroll, operational and capital spending, the total annual direct economic impact of the youth camping industry in New York is $1.3 billion.
This economic loss only compounds what will likely be a dicey summer tourism season in the Adirondack Park. At this writing, the North Country, which includes the park, is in Phase 1 of reopening per state guidelines in New York Forward. Moving to Phase 2 (which could happen May 30) will depend on how well the region does in the first phase, and if the region continues to fall within the pandemic recovery metrics established by the state. Even under best-case scenarios, where all amenities are open on some level by the end of June, no one is predicting that the summer tourism season will be vibrant.
The challenges to opening any camp during COVID-19 are clear from reading even one section of the interim guidelines that the American Camp Association began compiling mid-May. The guidelines suggest organizing groups into the smallest practical sizes and by “households” that live in subgroups. They eschew large groups, especially inside buildings, and suggest staggered dining times.
“We have done an end-to-end, top-to-bottom look at how we might operate,” says Barry Needleman, chairman of the board of directors for North Country Camps, which announced last week it was not going to open this summer. “There are probably ways we could have changed how we operate and programs … but it would have required us to so fundamentally change who we are and the experience people have come to expect and we want to provide.”
In a typical summer about 175 children attend North Country Camps, which includes Camp Lincoln for boys and Camp Whippoorwill for girls.
Notifying campers of the closure means having to offer refunds. Busman says Camp Fowler offered a total of 500 refunds even though they stopped taking reservations the beginning of March as a proactive cautionary measure. Some families opted for a total refund—“A lot of people need that money right now,” he says. Others rolled the payment over to next year. Still others donated the money. That three-pronged option is typical of the camps that are not open this summer.
“We’re incredibly fortunate,” Busman says. “We have only four full-time staff and we’re figuring out a way to keep them busy. I worry about camps that are smaller and have no reserves, and the bigger ones. There’s less room for error in a bigger place. We’re in that sweet zone where we’ll make it.”
Some closed camps are getting creative and offering other limited programming. “We’re gauging interest for something virtual or most likely mailed programming,” says Camp Eagle Island’s Dearden, noting not all families have access to technology. Craft supplies and written instructions as well as some online videos are in the mix. “Every camper who registered for a program will automatically be in some level of this,” she says.
Camp Fowler hopes to offer day passes while NCC is launching a family camp program that it has been considering for a few years, according to Needleman. “The primary idea behind this is it’s giving kids some chance to have that camp opportunity this summer. Number two is giving families and others a chance to have some time at camp and to do it in a way we are confident we can do safely.”
The idea of a family camp also goes to NCC’s education mission. “This is not just something where you jump in boats,” Needleman says. “We would run it like we run camp. Families can learn to canoe and to do off-trail travel. It’s a family educational experience.”
The program initially will offer four one-week family camps with a limit of up to 10 families per session, depending on family size. Each family will have its own cabin and bathroom. Eating in the dining hall, which typically can hold over 100 people, will be limited to 25-30 people at a time so families can practice social distance.
“This is obviously going to be a financial hit for us,” says Needleman. “It’s not an existential threat. We’re in a good financial position but we will have to dig deep into our reserve to cover fixed expenses.”
Overall, camp directors remain optimistic. 2020 may become known as the summer that wasn’t, but they’re confident they will be ready to open in 2021.
“We will come back better and stronger next year,” says Camp Eagle Island Executive Director Paula Michaelsen. “We’re tightening our belts but we will be ready for 2021.”