Camp Ketcha plans to open its summer camp in June, partially to help support parents who work in health care. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

New state guidelines have prompted more of the state’s 270 summer camps to cancel their season, but have helped assure others – including town recreation camps – that they can find a way to operate in some form this year.

About 14 camps decided to cancel their 2020 season, either after seeing the new guidelines or in anticipation of them, during the past week or so, said Ron Hall, executive director of Maine Summer Camps, which represents 147 Maine overnight and day camps. Hall and camp operators said no one or two guidelines handed down by the state played major roles in the decisions to close.

Camps were influenced more by the daunting task of having to make so many changes – including limiting camp sizes, requiring masks and keeping groups of campers from mixing – while possibly risking the health of staff, campers and the surrounding community. The guidelines for overnight camps run 10 pages, while the day- and rec-camp guidance is six pages.

The social distancing requirements were a factor in the recent decision to close the YMCA Camp of Maine in Winthrop, said Jeff Gleason, the overnight camp’s director and chief executive officer. The guidelines for overnight camps include the state order prohibiting gatherings of 50 or more people, and recommends that groups of campers who sleep in the same cabin limit their interaction with other groups. Gleason said communal gatherings in the dining hall and among cabin residents are a big part of how campers interact and form lasting friendships. The other major factor in the closing was the possible health risks to campers and their families, even if all guidelines are followed, he said.

“We are also conflicted with the differing opinions on the safety and welfare of our community,” Gleason said. “Keeping campers, staff, and vendors safe while they are here is one thing. What they may take home with them is another point to consider.”

In a video announcing the closing of Camp Beech Cliff, a day camp on Mount Desert Island, camp director Matt Cornish spoke about the challenges of trying to keep the camp open and running as usual while following social distancing and other guidelines.

“We had to be honest with ourselves, Camp Beech Cliff is the opposite of social distancing,” Cornish said. “It’s hugs and high-fives, crowded gaga pits. It’s tag games and clay-covered hands. An arm around your shoulder when the day has been tough.”

Hall said camp operators knew much of what the guidelines, released by the state on May 20, would include because the state had been soliciting input from them during the process. Earlier this spring, more than 40 day and overnight camps had decided they would not open this season, Hall said.

Billy Murdock works on a platform for a new yurt at Camp Ketcha, which will open its summer camp program in June. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

None of the 90 or so town and city recreation department camps represented by the Maine Recreation & Parks Association decided to close for the summer based on the guidelines, said Deb Smith, the executive director, though about nine had canceled sessions already. At least a half-dozen camps are still on the fence about whether they can open this summer, Smith said.

Some rec camp operators feel the guidelines for rec and day camps don’t talk specifically enough about group sizes – gatherings of more than 50 people are prohibited through July – and aren’t sure, for instance, if they can have five groups of 10 campers each in the same building if they’re separated. The rules also discourage small groups – say, those being supervised by the same counselor – from mixing with other small groups. Day camps are encouraged to have kids bring their own lunches, and to stagger arrival and drop-off times to avoid crowds of cars and parents.

The state’s summer camps – including day, overnight and rec camps – had been waiting for the guidelines since April 28, when Gov. Janet Mills announced that day camps for Maine children could open June 1 and overnight camps July 1, but with 14-day quarantines for out-of-state campers. The dates left most camps with dozens of questions about field trips, group sizes, mask-wearing and a myriad of other issues.

Many of the guidelines for all camps are general practices that most of us are familiar with after two months of living amid the coronavirus pandemic, including hand-washing, using face coverings when social distancing is not possible, and keeping any camp gathering small.

Out-of-state campers attending a camp that has multiple sessions must quarantine in Maine for 14 days before going to the camp, according to the guidelines. But overnight camps that only have one session per summer can be considered “a single community” for purposes of following the quarantine order, meaning campers from out of state can “shelter in place” by staying in the camp, the guidelines read.

Slovenski Camps in Raymond is one of the overnight camps that have decided to operate under the guidelines. Owner Peter Slovenski will open just to Maine campers to avoid quarantine issues. He said about half his campers usually come from away, and he’s expecting to take on debt to stay open this year. Still, he thinks it’s important for the long-term success of his camp and the outlook of his campers.

“The economics of it will lead us into debt, but we don’t think of it as reopening the economy. We think of it as reopening life,” said Slovenski. “We’ll open, and do the best we can to help the children of Maine reopen their lives.”

In Westbrook, the city’s recreation camp is still planning to open, said Anthony Dahms, children’s program coordinator, and the guidelines make more clear some of the challenges to doing that. For instance, guidelines about having to space children out on a bus for field trips reinforced for Dahms his earlier opinion that field trips probably wouldn’t make sense this year. Buses cost money, and by spacing kids out more, more buses would be needed.

In South Portland, the state guidelines released Wednesday gave recreation camp organizers “confidence and direction” to move forward for this summer, but with changes, said Robert Carter, recreation manager for the city. Because of group size limits and other guidelines, the city’s camps will serve about 120 children as opposed to about 450 in past years, Carter said. Other changes include requiring campers to bring a mask, and keeping campers in the same groups of 10 children for the entire summer.

The rules were not a surprise to Thomas Doherty, executive director of Camp Ketcha, a popular day camp in Scarborough. Doherty said, to follow the guidelines, the number of campers will have to be significantly reduced, especially in early sessions. He said the camp will likely have about 56 campers when it opens in June, compared to 200 most years. The camp is also canceling trips, he said.

Doherty said that about 75 percent of the camp’s parents work in essential services, including health care, so keeping the camp open to help them is important.

“We want to support their critical work as much as we can safely. That is what is driving us to try to get open,” said Doherty. “They have been telling us how important camp and care for their children is for them this summer.”

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