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Summer camps are in limbo, causing more hardship for operators, parents, and kids

Lereca Rodrigues, 19, was going to be a counselor at Camp Harbor View this summer.
Lereca Rodrigues, 19, was going to be a counselor at Camp Harbor View this summer.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

There probably won’t be any relay races at summer camp this year. No sharing of toasted marshmallows around the fire. And horsing around in the pool will be banned under strict social distancing rules.

And that’s if summer camp even happens.

The idyllic experience ― marked by group activities, communal living, and care-free fellowship ― is in jeopardy because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While some camps around New England are trying to figure out how to balance safety and fun, others have already thrown in the beach towel, deciding that the many precautions needed to keep everyone healthy will make it impossible to operate.

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“In the last week or so, it’s become clear to us that the likelihood of us being able to have any sort of camp is very slim,” said Sharon McNally, president of Camp Harbor View, a free day-camp program that usually draws more than 1,000 children from Boston’s underserved neighborhoods.

McNally and her colleagues have reviewed draft federal guidelines for running a camp with social distancing, which she calls “the antithesis of what camp is all about.” Harbor View is waiting for official guidance from the city and state before making a final decision on whether to offer its summer programs on Long Island in Boston Harbor.

Without a consensus about how to safely operate camps, many day and overnight programs have put off deciding whether to welcome children this year. That means parents are in limbo, after months without school or day care.

“Camps are facing an unprecedented challenge,” said Scott Brody, who owns New Hampshire’s Camps Kenwood & Evergreen and helps manage day camps in Sharon and Sudbury.

Camps generate more than $500 million annually in Massachusetts, according to industry data, but Brody said they have not received the attention of other sectors hard-hit by the economic shutdown. They also have an especially narrow window for recovery.

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“Even restaurants had a first quarter this year, and might have a decent third quarter or fourth quarter. Camps really operate just during the summer," Brody said. “So we are deeply vulnerable.”

A key attraction of camp is the opportunity to be with people you don’t see at school or in your neighborhood. Campers dine together, participate in sports and physical activities, and ― in the case of overnight camp ― bunk together, all activities that current public health guidelines strongly discourage.

“It wouldn’t be the same,” said Lereca Rodrigues, 19, who attended Camp Harbor View for years and was set to be a counselor this summer, her last before leaving for college. She has a hard time imagining climbing a rock wall without touching someone else: “Everything we do is together," Rodrigues said. "It’s teamwork.”

The American Camp Association, an accrediting organization of which Brody is chairman, is working on a health and safety plan. The Trump administration has reportedly shelved a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention document laying out how camps and other facilities could reopen. And state and local governments are still trying to get a handle on the issue.

Massachusetts has not laid out what the rules should be if camps are able to open, but Governor Charlie Baker said recently that the topic has been a focus of his attention. Baker said he had spoken to about 20 governors about camps and other child care providers, and he had not yet heard of an approach that would safely preserve the “joys of being a kid.”

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“It’s not just important for people’s ability to work,” Baker said last week. “This is one of those things that makes kids kids, and we get that.”

Baker said he is trying to work out “some way to do this where you have at least enough rules to make sure it can be done safely, but you don’t destroy the whole spontaneous nature of what these are supposed to be about.”

Connecticut will allow day camps ― but not overnight programs ― to open on June 29 with strict public health protocols. Most camps will be limited to 30 campers per program, participants will have to get temperature checks before entering a camp, and all facilities must adhere to aggressive cleaning guidelines.

Summer camps in Rhode Island will be allowed to open June 29, Governor Gina M. Raimondo said this week, but there may be limits on the number of youths and how they interact.

But with the weather warming and the clock ticking, camps operators are becoming increasingly anxious.

“Every camp right now has like five or 10 different scenarios going on in their mind if they haven’t already made a decision” on whether they could open, said Bette Bussel, executive director of the New England chapter of the American Camp Association.

The trade organization has been advising camps about how to deal with finances if they can’t operate. One option is to hold virtual camps, where students try to remotely replicate activities and personal interactions.

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Many overnight and day-camp programs rely on tuition payments to sustain their organizations through the year. The loss of the summer season could be ruinous.

“I am hoping that most of them will survive,” Bussel said. “There will be some that won’t reopen again, which is a terrible thing for me to think about, because young people really need camp.”

Even large organizations such as the YMCA will struggle without camp revenue. Bussel said money from summer programs supports many other activities and services.

James Morton, chief executive of the YMCA of Greater Boston, said he hopes the organization’s experience with running emergency child care centers during the pandemic will help. Precautions such as regular temperature checks for children give him confidence that if the Y can care for children safely indoors, it can do so in the fresh air.

Still, Morton said he has not yet been able to make a decision about the fate of the 25 day camps his organization runs around Boston, or the three overnight camps it operates in New Hampshire.

“We are preparing as if camp is going to happen, but we will follow the expert advice of health officials and the governor and the mayors,” he said. “We will not provide summer camp if it’s not safe to do so. We will not put children in harm’s way.”

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Like many camp programs operating in multiple states, Morton is facing additional uncertainty. New Hampshire has also not yet laid out detailed rules for camps, but that state’s course may be different from what Baker decides.

In Maine, where many Boston-area families send their children for summer camp, some programs have determined that they won’t be able to operate under the state’s rules. Maine will limit gatherings to no more than 50 people throughout the summer, and it will require that anyone coming from out of state quarantine for two weeks.

Kieve Wavus Education, which runs programs for boys and girls along Damariscotta Lake, called off its season early this month.

Executive director Henry R. Kennedy said that even without the restrictions, he wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing so many campers together — especially given recent indications that the virus may be more dangerous to children than previously thought.

“Our heads overruled our hearts on this thing. We badly wanted kids to get out of the city and get up into the pristine Maine air . . . but we were too scared,” said Kennedy, whose family has been involved with Kieve Wavus over four generations. “You put this many people here from all over the world and somebody’s bound to get sick. It’s so contagious that it would just rip through here.”

Brody, of Camps Kenwood & Evergreen, said the considerations regarding day camps versus overnight programs will be vastly different.

Day camps will require regular screening of people who come and go, and stringent monitoring of personal interactions, in case someone gets sick. Overnight camps are more insular. Children and staff members typically stay put for several weeks. Brody said there have been discussions in the industry about the possibility of initially testing everyone and then taking measures to avoid allowing anyone who might have the virus from coming to camp.

For some parents, the prospect of sending their children to an overnight camp seems like a good idea for reasons that go beyond concerns about the spread of the virus.

Douglas Neu, of Arlington, joked that his daughter, who is in grade school, would probably prefer to be away for a while.

“She’s sort of angling for more sleepaway camp because, quite frankly, she’s sick of being at home and with us,” he said.

Neu said that camp, in any format, will benefit his daughter.

“She’s a total extrovert. So the sooner we can get her into something that’s safe, that’s with kids her age, the better it’s going to be for everybody,” he said. “But there’s nothing we can do. We just have to wait.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.


Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen.