Business & Economy

Vermont’s summer camps face decision time on 2020 season 

Campers enjoy the summer at Songadeewin in Salisbury. Courtesy photo

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As Vermont summer camps enter a critical stage of planning for the coming months, a few have already decided to stay closed for the summer, saying the risks in the face of the Covid-19 crisis are not manageable.

Farm & Wilderness, which has about 500 campers and 250 staff on its 4,800-acre properties in Plymouth and Mount Holly, told parents and campers May 4 that it won’t open this year.

“This will be the first time we have not run our camps in the 81-year history of Farm & Wilderness and we are all heartbroken,” wrote Jay Kullman, the camp’s interim executive director, on the camp’s website.

About 10 of the 35 camps that belong to the Vermont Camp Association have announced they’re closed this summer, said Ellen Flight, who is president of Songadeewin Camp in Salisbury and director of the association. 

The rest, like Songadeewin and its brother camp, Keewaydin, which have 500 campers between them, are waiting to hear guidance from the American Camp Association, which is meeting Friday with camp directors. The ACA has said it will issue its own guidelines regarding camps by May 7. The Vermont group isn’t going to make any recommendations to its members, Flight said.

“Every camp has its own decision to make,” said Flight. “The state is not going to tell us if we can open. They are going to give us guidelines, and it will be each camp deciding if they can safely run their program. Each camp is so different, in what the parameters are, what their property looks like, where their kids come from.”

Keewaydin and Songadeewin plan to announce their joint plan by May 25 or before, the camp’s leaders said in a letter on Keewaydin’s website.

Camp Hochelaga, a YWCA camp in South Hero, is transferring scholarships that were assigned to the canceled 2020 season to the 2021 season, the camp said May 4.

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Kullman, at Farm & Wilderness, said the decision by the camp leaders was informed by the requirement that anyone traveling from out of state must quarantine for 14 days. Many of the Farm & Wilderness campers travel from Boston, Brooklyn and Washington, D.C. Some come from Europe.

If the guidelines change, Kullman said, there still won’t be time for Farm & Wilderness to prepare for camp. Staff arrive at the beginning of June to prepare. He added that if the camp did open, leaders would have to be prepared to send everyone home if someone tested positive for the virus.

Social distancing would also alter how children eat together and share cabins.

“That doesn’t lend itself well to the type of experience we like to offer,” Kullman said. “It’s about personal connection for children, and being part of a group and a community. That’s just not really who we are if we can’t offer that.”

The Hosmer Point camp has switched to “Hosmer at Home,” a virtual version of its Craftsbury camp for about 140 people. And it’s thinking ahead.

“Over the coming weeks, we will continue to monitor federal and state guidelines for reopening summer camps,” Hosmer camp leaders said. “ If alternative programs with smaller groups and less social contact can be run later in our season or in the fall, expect to hear from us.”

Campers gather around a campfire at Keewaydin in Salisbury. Courtesy photo

Bruce Moreton, who owns Night Eagle Wilderness Adventures in Wallingford, still plans to open. With his 32 campers sleeping in teepees and eating in the open on 135 acres, he said he can be flexible and push the opening of camp to July 15 if he needs to. And if he ends up closing for the summer after all, Moreton does have an alternate revenue source.

“We’ve been trying to cut some trees for the last seven or eight years, so this might be the perfect opportunity and that might bring in some income,” he said.

As it is with other sectors, the state’s Agency of Commerce and Community Development is working with summer camp leaders to come up with safety guidelines. ACCD Deputy Secretary Ted Brady met with camp leaders on May 3. On May 5, he steered clear of predicting whether the governor will issue a recommendation or order concerning summer camps, but he said day camps will probably operate differently from residential camps, because the latter tend to draw people from out of state.

It’s not yet clear what the financial impact would be of closing the camps, which also draw parents and families from out of state to Vermont in the summer and employ hundreds of people. Flight said she fears for the future of some of Vermont’s smaller camps. Farm & Wilderness, which has an endowment of $7 million, isn’t in danger of going under completely if it misses a season, according to Kullman. But some others are marginal, Flight said. 

A camper reaches for a flying disc at Keewaydin. Courtesy photo

“We understand that summer camps are important to Vermonters, and important to Vermont’s economy, and we are trying to identify a path forward,” Brady said. “Unfortunately, the virus and pandemic and uncertainty doesn’t allow us to move as quickly as some businesses need us to.”

This summer will be the first in more than 100 years without camp Dudley – a camp for boys in Westport, New York – and Camp Kinaya – a sister camp in Colchester, the camp’s leaders said in a letter to families April 15.

Dudley and Kinaya are following guidance from federal and state officials, the American Camp Association, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the letter said. It’s not possible to open safely, the leaders said.

“Our Camp Motto — the Other Fellow First — compels us to prioritize the well-being of our campers and staff and our local communities in Westport and Colchester,” they wrote.  

Vermont is now operating under an executive order that limits all gathering sizes to 10 people or fewer. That order is set to expire May 15. Brady has asked camp leaders to produce a rough draft this week of safety guidelines.

“Our hope is we can find a way to get summer camps a path forward this summer,” Brady said. “We don’t know that we’re going to be able to. The governor is interested in evaluating whether there is a safe way to do so, and we’re asking the summer camps to help us evaluate that.”

Campers at Songadeewin in Salisbury. Courtesy photo

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Correction: This story has been updated to correct the number of staff at Farm & Wilderness.

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