COVID-19: Already ‘fragile’ Ontario camps industry facing uncertain summer

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The Ontario Camps Association says it’s working with the government to try to find a way to open safely this summer amid the ongoing pandemic, but some camps have already made the choice to close or alter programming in the face of more uncertainty.

Chair of the OCA’s COVID-19 Task Force Jack Goodman says some summer camps that receive a large number of American campers have chosen to close for the upcoming summer over concerns about impediments at the border or “daunting” quarantine requirements.

Other camps have pivoted to different types of operations, he says, “because the uncertainty is just beyond their ability or capacity to wait and wait and wait.”

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

Camp Kee-Mo-Kee in Komoka, Ont., just outside of London, is among the camps that have chosen not to run overnight camps regardless of what the government decides.

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“The OCA has done a lot of work in supporting camps and helping us get ready and advocacy and legislation,” says executive director Jill Hodgins.

“But for our situation, it’s a five-day short session, we felt that it’s safer just to do day camp this year.”

Hodgins added that they’re “lucky” to be able to pivot.

“A lot of overnight camps just can’t pivot to a day camp scenario because no one’s going to drive five hours to the Muskokas for day camp.”

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

In response to a request for comment from Global News, the Ministry of Health referred to an interview that Ontario’s chief medical officer of health Dr. David Williams gave where he said it’s too soon to say whether overnight camps will go ahead this summer but the public will be informed “as soon as we think there’s a way to do it.”

“We’re going to have to look at how we might do that with our vaccine program continuing with the possibility that they may be bringing in vaccines for adolescents. So there’s a lot of things that are shifting and moving at this stage,” he said.

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“We got to get out of this third wave and we’ve got to keep it suppressed.”

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Last summer, overnight camps were not permitted in Ontario, while day camps were eventually allowed to operate with modifications.

Goodman says the financial consequences have left the entire industry in a “fragile” state and another quiet summer could prove too much for some camps.

“It’s very difficult to speak about the long-term effects and whether or not there will be permanent attrition,” he says.

“It’s only so long that an industry can survive, you know, without any income at all.”

Overnight camps are able to receive some financial support through the federal wage subsidy and Goodman is anticipating further federal support.

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Provincially, there is the Small Business Support Grant, but Goodman says camps were initially ineligible and were only able to receive one of the two rounds of $10,000-$20,000.

The upcoming Ontario Tourism and Hospitality Small Business Support Grant specifically mentions overnight summer camps but also says “any small businesses that received the Ontario Small Business Support Grant will not be eligible for this new grant.

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

Goodman added that one of the challenges of the industry is that it doesn’t really “belong” to any particular government ministry.

“The Ontario Camps Association has been around for 88 years. Maybe because we’ve done such a remarkably great job at instilling a high level of professionalism and a high level of standards and safety, there’s been no need for government regulation — and we’re quite happy to see that continue,” he said.

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“What we would like to do is find a ministry to be our champion. And we’ve made efforts with the Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Cultural Industries.”

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He says the OCA is working closely with the Ministry of Health to prepare for the summer, but “they can’t really help us in the long-term” and “we don’t want to slip through the cracks like this ever again.”

The Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Cultural Industries’ senior communications advisor Dakota Brasier says the ministry “will continue to work with our public health officials to ensure camps are able to reopen, as soon as it’s safe to do so.”

Brasier added that in addition to the Small Business Support Grant, “any additional supports for summer camps, including overnight camps, will be considered as we plan for a broader recovery within our sectors.”

Read more: Ontario offers $200 Million in recovery programs aimed at tourism and hospitality sector

Across Canada, camp associations are concerned that if the summer of 2021 is not an improvement on 2020, that it could mark the end of many camps.

Canadian Camp Association president Stéphane Richard says about 75 per cent of its members are in the non-profit sector, meaning many are subsidized or rely on donations in order to make programs affordable and accessible.

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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— With files from Global News’ Katie Dangerfield

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