COVID-19 ‘still evolving’: Canadian summer camps uncertain about opening

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WATCH ABOVE: Summer is fast approaching, but as Canada's grapples with this third wave of COVID-19, there are still doubts whether summer camps will be back in operation for the upcoming season. As Ross Lord reports, children and parents are hopeful, but aren't so sure. – May 9, 2021

As the warmer months creep closer, there is still uncertainty on whether overnight summer camps will open across Canada amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Many provincial health officials haven’t given the green light for overnight camps to operate, nor have they given a timeline on when a decision will be made — leaving businesses in limbo.

“The uncertainty is hard,” said Sheila LeBrun, co-owner of New Brunswick summer camp, Snider Mountain Ranch. “This year we are assuming it will open, but it all depends on the (COVID-19) numbers.”

LeBrun’s camp, located near Saint John, is currently allowed to open for sleepaways under New Brunswick’s yellow zone, but that could change anytime, she said.

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Read more: Overnight camps will go ahead this summer in Quebec, association says

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The camp has hired staff for the summer and has already sold out of most of the overnight camps.

LeBrun said the camp is also prepped for COVID-19 restrictions, such as reduced class capacity, handwashing stations and a drive-thru drop-off (instead of parents helping kids unpack).

“The feedback we’ve had from parents and kids for this summer is just so positive, you wouldn’t believe it,” she said.

Last summer was a write-off for overnight summer camps in all provinces except New Brunswick, which allowed them to open, but with restrictions.

Horseback riding at Snider Mountain Ranch. Supplied

Snider Mountain Ranch was able to operate last year but LeBrun said it was still difficult financially as it had to reduce activities and camp sizes.

“In New Brunswick last summer, even though we were allowed, probably half the camps in the province didn’t open because to get ready, you had to spend a fair bit of money,” she said. “With all the restrictions, it was super hard for the staff, super hard with all the cleaning protocols.”

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Although her ranch is likely able to open its doors to children this summer, some other camps aren’t as lucky.

Camp cancelled, yet again

With the uncertainty of the pandemic continuing to linger, some overnight camps have decided to change to “day camps” while others have closed shop for a second summer in a row.

“Some camps are looking at the situation and saying, ‘You know what, we don’t have the infrastructure in place, we don’t know all of the details, at this point we don’t feel comfortable that we can make a decision to operate,'” said Stéphane Richard, president of the Canadian Camp Association.

This week, Camp Tawingo in Muskoka, Ont., announced it will not be operating its in-person camp this summer.

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At the end of April, the YMCA’s Camp Kanawana in Quebec said it will remain closed for a second consecutive year due to uncertainties with COVID-19.

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“It is with a heavy heart that we must announce that once again all our Camp YMCA Kanawana programs are cancelled for the summer,” a statement read on the camp’s website. “The pandemic is still evolving in an uncertain manner. Even with our best efforts, we believe it will be very difficult to welcome our campers back safely.”

And in March, Pearce Williams summer camp in Fingal, Ont., announced it will not be opening for the summer 2021 season.

In a video posted on the camp’s website, Joe Richards, the executive director at Pearce Williams, said the closure was due to a lack of “clear guidance” from Ontario health officials.

“Pearce Williams had a hard year in 2020 with no camp. We know that our campers and families had the same. We are saddened to not be able to run traditional overnight summer programming this summer either,” Richards said.

Camp and mental well-being

In the wake of these closures, some health officials are urging provinces to greenlight sleepaway camps this summer, arguing it provides mental well-being for kids, especially after a year of on-and-off lockdown measures.

In March, a group of doctors in Quebec called on the government to allow overnight camps to resume this summer.

The letter, signed by nearly 90 pediatricians and other specialists, urged Quebec’s health department to open sleepaway camps this summer as well as give these businesses time to create a safe plan to operate under COVID-19 restrictions.

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On Friday, the Association des Camps du Québec said the province has given camps the green light to operate in Quebec this summer but under special health guidelines.

Young campers at Snider Mountain Ranch in New Brunswick. Supplied

Summer camp is an opportunity for children and teenagers to socialize with their peers and teach them everything things such as how to tie a square knot or how to do kayak. But it also offers much more than that, according to a study out of the University of Waterloo. The study found that summer camps offer kids the ability to gain social skills, environmental awareness, emotional intelligence and self-confidence.

Mel Millward, president of Trails Youth Initiatives in Ontario, said her camp offers vulnerable youth in Toronto an escape into nature — teaching leadership, conflict resolution, as well as physical and mental wellness.

Trails Youth Initiatives is preparing to open for the summer, hoping the province allows overnight camping, she said.

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All of our youth are experiencing such a social malnutrition, 70 per cent reported deterioration of mental health, three times as many suicide attempts.”

Millward explained that Trails’ main purpose is prevention — to keep kids off drugs, and out of gangs and jail, and to stay in school.

“But it isn’t hard for any kid to lose hope and find themselves challenged by this delicate time,” she added.

Read more: Organizers ask for free COVID-19 testing for kids and staff to keep Ontario summer camps open

That’s why she’s hoping the province will allow the camp to open this summer, as the program helps builds confidence, leadership, increases social skills and the ability to self-regulate.

“And for all those reasons, we’re considering this to be our most important year in our 30-year history. So kids need camp now more than ever. We need to give them some form of hope,” Millward said.

Not only are camps hoping to open this summer because of children’s mental well-being, but also for the financial burden.

The Canadian Camp Association has around 1,000 camp members across Canada, Richard said. About 75 per cent are in the non-profit sector, meaning many are subsidized or rely on donations in order to make programs affordable and accessible.

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“Financially it’s been difficult,” he said. But there have been things that have helped, such as wage subsidies offered by federal and provincial governments.

“But even if we operate this summer, it’s not going to be easier financially as we won’t be able to operate at full capacity,” he said.

Richard said his association surveyed its members earlier on in the pandemic, and 60 per cent of camps said if they don’t operate for two years in a row, they could shut down business by the end of 2021.

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Global News emailed the Ontario Ministry of Health asking whether or not it will allow overnight camps to operate this summer.

A spokesperson did not answer the question but did refer to an interview that Ontario’s chief medical officer of health Dr. David Williams gave, where he said that overnight camps come with risks.

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“You have to be very careful in those settings because they are in very close contact,” he said. “We got to get out of this third wave and we’ve got to keep it suppressed. So we don’t want to have an overnight camp situation becoming a very sad situation with, with outbreaks.”

He added that although he cannot give a definite answer, “as soon as we think there’s a way to do it, we will be informing the public.”

How camps are trying to operate safely

As the pandemic continues to rage in Canada, with provinces like Alberta reporting a high number of COVID-19 cases this week, many camps remain hopeful that overnight stays will be welcome this summer.

Richard said he’s talked with camps that remain “optimistic and realistic” — they are hoping for the best but also know it’s a challenging time with more transmissible variants circulating around.

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These overnight camps have been preparing to open safely amid a pandemic in two ways: pre-arrival and onsite operations, he explained.

For example, pre-arrival restrictions could entail COVID-19 testing requirements, isolation before camp starts, as well as testing on the first day.

“Onsite operations would probably mimic the protocols that have been in place in schools and daycares this year, with social bubbles and a maximum number of children allowed in each group,” Richard explained.

“Staff would be part of that bubble, potentially wearing masks.”

Camp New Moon in Baysville, Ont., is currently prepping for the summer, hoping the province gives the green light.

The owner, Jack Goodman, also serves as chair of the Ontario Camps Association COVID-19 Task Force. He said his camp, and many others across the province, are hoping to go above and beyond with safety protocols this summer.

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Testing, screening and quarantining before arrival are key to keep transmission low, he said.

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Other safety protocols include cohorting groups of kids and staff, mandatory mask-wearing and moving most activities outdoors, like theatre and singing.

“We’ve also purchased high-quality tents so that we can extend the footprint of our dining room, … so that we can physically distance tables where they’re going to eat,” Goodman explained.

Until Ontario and other provinces give camps the go-ahead to operate overnights (if they do) Goodman said it’s just a waiting game.

“We’re putting ourselves in a state of readiness when the green light happens. We know our parents and our campers have confidence that the staff are preparing campers … so that they have confidence in how safe and careful we are,” he said.

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