Just days before some overnight camps had planned to open, the state changed its Phase 3 guidelines to exclude them, building on months of frustration of feeling left in the dark, according to the Massachusetts Camping Association.
The organization, which represents day and overnight camps, said that while the industry has been financially decimated by the virus, the Baker administration and Department of Public Health have only compounded their difficulties by failing to consult with them on guidelines or communicate in a timely way.
“We really tried to reach out to them many, many, many times, and we were met with silence,” said Scott Brody, chair of the board for the American Camp Association, who is involved with the Massachusetts Camping Association and runs two day camps in Massachusetts.
The 13 overnight camps that had planned to reopen found out they could not open when the director of the American Camping Association’s New England branch discovered Thursday that the guidelines for Phase 3 had been altered on the state’s website. Toward the bottom of the lengthy “Reopening: When can my business reopen” page, which includes information for dozens of businesses, one of many sources of COVID-19 information on the site, the state included one brief line: “Phase 4 – overnight camps (Summer 2021).”
“That was a punch to the face for all of us,” said Matt Scholl, president of the state camping association and a director of two camps. “It came as a total shock to us. We didn’t even get an e-mail or a phone call about it.”
Just the day before, Brody said, he had spoken with officials in Baker’s office and at the Department of Public Health who made no mention of the change, even when Brody said he discussed the 13 overnight camps.
John Szablowski, the director at Hume New England Christian Camps in Monterey said the camp had spent “tens of thousands” of dollars to prepare for its June 13 reopening. Early meal preparations had begun, lawns had been mowed, sets were being built, and lifeguard training was underway. Some camp staffers were on an airplane flying in when Szablowski got the news that his camp could not open.
“It caught us off guard . . . We didn’t expect to just be stopped in our tracks, and that is what happened” he said Saturday.
A Baker administration spokesman did not respond directly to questions about the last-minute change, but sent a statement on Saturday that said: “The list of businesses and activities is subject to revision based on the latest public health data and the issuance of sector-specific guidance that details the protocols and practices necessary for the safe resumption and to reduce the risk of the public’s exposure to COVID-19.”
Responding to an e-mail from the organizations inquiring about the change on Friday, Commissioner Jana Ferguson of the DPH said rising numbers of cases of the virus in other states may have prompted the decision.
“While we were planning and progressing with the hope that overnight camps would be a safe option for youth this summer, my understanding is that the data, especially from other states within the last week or so, made overnight camps with children and staff that may be coming from all over the country untenable,” she said in the e-mail, which was provided to the Globe on Saturday.
“I truly regret that we were unable to communicate this decision in advance. It was ultimately decided based on very recent data and was included in the information about the changes in the upcoming phase to provide immediate notice,” she said.
Whatever the reason, Scholl said, the impact on the camps is significant, as most will be facing the challenge of reopening next summer after 22 months with no revenue. Many may not survive, he said.
According to his organization, at least a third of camps and as many as two-thirds may never reopen. Overall, camps in the state stand to lose about $450 million this summer, Scholl said.
The late notice to those remaining overnight camps — 90 percent of them had already thrown in the towel and decided not to reopen this summer — only means further losses, he said.
“It’s a heavy burden right now, a heavy load,” said Szablowski, who does not know if his year-round camp will be able to reopen if Phase 4 comes before the summer, given the language on the state website. “Especially when you move all the way to the starting line, and then at the last minute you find out there’s not going to be a game. That was disappointing.”
Sheryl Moore, executive director of Camp Marshall in Spencer, had planned to open her overnight camp on Monday, and the news hit her hard when she found out Thursday night. “I’m still a little bit in disbelief. It did come so far out of left field,” she said.
With no mention of the change at Baker’s press conference and the website update appearing after his office had closed for the holiday weekend, she said she felt “hoodwinked.”
It was like a “swept-under-the-rug, last-minute change,” said Moore, who also said she expects a financial loss from the decision. “I think being far more forthcoming would have been a lot more fair to our industry.”
The lack of communication from officials has been causing difficulties for the state’s camps since the spring, Scholl said. Many camps gave up waiting and announced closures before the state first issued its guidance in early June, which had to be altered soon after because parts were unworkable, he said.
As of Sunday, no new guidance had been issued to prepare day camps for Phase 3, which begins Monday, Brody said.
According to Brody, Massachusetts has not only been one of the most conservative states in the country in regulating camps during the pandemic — most states have reopened overnight camps, he said — but it has also been unusually slow to release decisions.
New Hampshire and Connecticut made announcements regarding overnight camps at least a month before Massachusetts did; New York announced that sleep-away camps would remain closed for the season weeks ago. Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire had already reopened overnight camps, he said.
“This is a really challenging environment and we can never blame our public health officials for putting the health of the public first,” Brody said. “I assume it was with the best of intentions; however, the timing has exacerbated this situation so badly for camps, and we feel very disappointed about that.”
“The challenge of this is just astronomical.” And the state’s lack of partnership, he said, has made it “exponentially worse.”
Brody and Scholl said they are just looking for the state to communicate with them as it had before the pandemic.
“I think that the key is we absolutely need the state to work with us for the future,” Scholl said. “What’s a stake is hundreds of thousands of places for kids in the summer.”
Lucas Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.