Banned camp?: Ontario camps are running out of time to save the summer

ANALYSIS: If summer camps don’t get some clarity soon on whether they’ll be allowed to reopen, some may never reopen again
By John Michael McGrath - Published on May 07, 2021
Camp New Moon, located east of Bracebridge, began operating in the 1950s. (Facebook)

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Jack Goodman has a simple message for the government of Ontario: it’s now or never.

Goodman is owner of Camp New Moon, located outside Baysville, east of Bracebridge, and he’s also chair of the Ontario Camps Association’s COVID-19 task force. In his role with the OCA, he’s been sounding the alarm for weeks that, if camp operators don’t get some measure of clarity from the province about whether they’ll be allowed to reopen, and under what kind of regulations, many summer camps will simply choose not to reopen.

Faced with a second consecutive year without any real revenues, some camps may simply never reopen at all.

“Our runway is no longer measured in weeks or months; it’s measured in days,” Goodman told TVO.org earlier this week. “We’re not asking to open now, today. We’re simply asking to be able to operate in adherence to public-health guidance.”

In Ontario, day camps were allowed to reopen last summer, while overnight camps were closed due to the lack of certainty about whether they could operate safely. Day camps that opened were required to adhere to public-health measures and supervised by local medical officers of health. Overnight summer camps are asking for similar treatment — not anything goes, but at least some ability to welcome guests for the summer, subject to rules.

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The catch — and the reason summer camps are increasingly worried about the summer season in early May — is that, in order to be able to welcome guests in July and August, they need to start preparing as much as a year before, and critical work to prepare the camps for any kind of operations needs to start now.

That preparation costs money, and camps need to have some kind of assurance they’ll be able to recoup their costs before they start their work — and hire their summer staff.

The real-world circumstances of 2021 make things even more complicated, as camps, such as Goodman’s, that are making the preparations to reopen need to spend substantially to make their camps safer from COVID-19.

“We’ve put up large tents to expand our dining areas to space things out, and If you could see my car right now, you’d see it’s absolutely full of sanitizer and masks,” Goodman says. “We’ve stuck our necks out. We’re optimistic. But that may not be enough.”

Camps aren’t operating entirely in the dark: Public Health Ontario published a report in March outlining measures that have worked to contain the spread of COVID-19 at overnight camps (based on cases from outside of Ontario) and measures that haven’t. PHO recommends pre-arrival quarantine for campers, testing, symptom screening, cohorting, physical distancing, and the use of face coverings — many of the same measures that were used in Ontario schools over the past year.

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When asked last week about whether camps would be allowed to operate this summer, the province’s chief medical officer of health, David Williams, was unable to offer any clarity for camp operators.

“There's a lot of things we'd like to do this summer, but we're going to have to wait to see if we can get this third way beaten down and to keep it down and keep our vaccines rolling,” Williams said at Queen’s Park on April 26. “So I can't give a definitive answer on that at this stage. I would have liked to, but there's too many things moving at this stage.”

Williams, the government, and camp operators are all in agreement on at least one point: it would be massively beneficial for young people to have camps open, if safety permits.

“They understand the social malnutrition that children have undergone, the mental-health deprivation they’ve undergone,” Goodman says. “We’re mindful to keep working with [the Ontario government].”

Some camps have already advised families that they simply won’t open this year, that the uncertainty is too much for them to reasonably plan around. The Canadian Camping Association, the national counterpart to the OCA, warns that 1,000 camps may never reopen if they close again this summer. Financial support from the province or from the federal government would help — last year, Quebec gave summer camps $13.7 million in support, and it’s considering more aid this year.

With falling case counts and surging vaccinations, there’s a very real possibility that it will be safe for summer camps to operate this year. But that permission could come too late to matter.

“Sixty thousand businesses have failed across Canada because of COVID. That’s not lost on us,” Goodman says. “But we’re one of the only industries that’s been closed for over a year, uninterrupted, and we couldn’t pivot to curbside-pickup camps.”

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