When Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner of New York, announced on June 12 that sleep-away summer camps in the state were too dangerous to open amid the global coronavirus pandemic, it merely confirmed what parents already knew: The time-honored summer routine has become yet another flash point in a country still struggling to contain the covid-19 coronavirus.
"A lot of people are on the fence, but I can't sit here and watch my son have no social life except for video games," sighs Lizzie Grubman, a publicist and manager who is packing her 11-year-old son off to one of the few New England camps that are open. "That's his interaction with friends these days. I finally said: 'You haven't left the room in five days; you are going to camp!'"
The crisis that camps are facing this year is even bigger than the financial downturn's turmoil in 2008, when some families were unable to afford the annual $6,000 to $14,000 for their children to attend.
Summer camps, which began in the 1870s, were created to get children out of the city and allow them to connect with nature and engage in outdoor activities. Camps can take up to 400 children, while ages can range from 7 to 16. It generally lasts about seven weeks, from the beginning of July to mid-August.
New York's decision followed similar decisions made in New Jersey and Connecticut and slammed the brakes on this part of an $18 billion industry, shuttering more than 85 accredited overnight camps in the state. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had issued new guidelines early this month, suggesting coronavirus screening protocols and daily evaluation of children and staff for symptoms and exposure to COVID-19. But it left the final call as to whether camps could proceed up to each state.
"Overnight camps have congregate settings and sleeping arrangements in close quarters that present too many risks," explained Zucker in his ruling. He cited bunks, communal bathrooms, and eating arrangements as potential breeding grounds of infection. "In such a setting, even a single positive case in a camper or staff member could create an untenable quarantine situation."
Yet parents are as eager as their children to get some breathing room. After such a long period of relative confinement at home, they are desperate to have their children reconnect with friends and engage in athletic pursuits.
In interviews, parents say they feel that the extreme safety measures camps are taking, combined with the low-risk ages of their offspring, present a minimal downside.
Still, many summer retreats have been ordered to close. Others have chosen not to open this season in the face of severe limitations on interactions and the potential for liability if children are exposed to the virus. In states that are allowing camps to remain open, such as Maine, it's not always a clear-cut decision.
Jeff Konigsberg says he tried to find a way to stay open this summer. His extremely popular camps, Camp Takajo, which houses 400 boys, and Tripp Lake, which houses 300 girls, are about an hour north of Portland, Maine, and each costs more than $13,000 to attend. "Since the pandemic hit, I spent every waking moment trying to find a pathway," he says.
He spoke with epidemiologists and infectious disease doctors. "I was in touch with the state of Maine and the CDC, trying to do everything humanly possible to create a safe and healthy environment," he continues. "But in the end, we simply don't know, and that was the determining factor: the fear of looking one parent in the eye and saying his child was not well under my watch. We also have 200 staff at each facility, and they are at a more susceptible age."
Another reason it's been hard to proceed is that parents have been so ambivalent about committing. "Our community was splintered, and many families were not going to be there," Konigsberg explains. "A lot of people were giving us a soft yes. They didn't want to sign up until the end of June, and they wanted to see if best friends were signing up and if their money would be refundable at any time."
Other families headed out of the area entirely, escaping the city to such states as Florida.
"We are the biggest fans of Camp Laurel in Maine but just found out it's not happening," says Alison Brod, who owns a public relations company in Manhattan. After reviewing a variety of potential summer programs, she enrolled her kids at IMG Academy, a sports camp in Bradenton, Fla. "It has hundreds of acres, and each child has his own room and bathroom. There is a pizza cafe and sushi, and my kids are so excited because there is mental as well as physical training, which really gets them ready for school sports."
Camp Winnebago in Maine is one of about 20 private resident camps in the state that have decided to forge ahead. Others include such well-known options in the Northeast as Manitou, Somerset, and Pinecliffe in Maine; Robin Hood in New Hampshire; and Romaca, Greylock, and Belvoir Terrace in Massachusetts.
"We hear the adult voices but know how much children are suffering," says Andy Lilienthal, owner and director of Winnebago, which is in its 20th year and houses 140 boys and 60 employees. He and his wife, a pediatrician and public health official, feel that kids need camp more than ever this summer. "It's like peeling back an onion, where we looked at every piece of our program and focused on how to make it safe. We were very transparent with the parents, and only about 10% decided against sending their children."
Camp Winnebago tests children for covid-19 five days prior to their arrival and then again five days after they get there. Temperatures are taken daily, and boys are divided into small cohorts and socially distanced from other campers. After two weeks, those groups are expanded. Counselors wear face covering, and there are no visitors or day trips, which puts the annual reunion with parents once or twice a summer, as well as inter-camp games, off the table. "We will have the essential energy of camp but in a different form," says Lilienthal.
Lois Freedman, President and CEO of Jean Georges Management, is sending her 13-year-old daughter to Windsor Mountain, a co-ed sleepaway in New Hampshire. "I felt she deserved to salvage something of the summer and to be able to have a camp experience that she would have otherwise missed terribly," says Freedman. "I had to weigh the risks and it does make me a bit nervous, but I wanted her to have a technology-free period of time and the camp is taking such strict safety precautions that I feel it's the right decision.''
The American Camp Association insists that structured situations run by professionals can be less risky than having children stay home. "While no environment is 100% safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic, accredited overnight camps are supervised environments for children, where the risk will be mitigated," says Susie Lupert, executive director of the association's New York and New Jersey affiliates. "The benefits of camp for children's mental well-being far outweigh the risks. As families are beginning to go to the beach and the parks, we feel overnight camp can be a safer environment because they are monitored with set protocols in place."
Camp directors and owners who are operating this year may receive gratitude from gleeful parents, but several were concerned enough about scrutiny and opposition that they declined to be interviewed, or asked to speak without attribution. One such director defended his camp's decision to proceed this summer by saying the job is more purposeful today than ever. "Camps were created over 100 years ago to get children out of urban areas, away from disease and up to the mountains, where there is an abundance of fresh air and sunshine. This is the purpose we were founded on, and it is still our purpose today."
Grubman was encouraged by the fact that the camp is asking families to send their children's bags ahead for screening. Counselors arrive two weeks early for quarantine, medical and cleaning staff have been expanded, and nobody will leave the property. "It's their own little bubble," she says.