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Summer Camps Eyeing Another Season With COVID Restrictions

The 2020 camp season included masks and 2021 looks to be the same.
Courtesy of YUSA
The 2020 camp season included masks and 2021 looks to be the same.

Last week's warm weather was a tease of spring, giving rise to thoughts of budding flowers, longer days and for some, the anticipation of summer camp. Signs-ups are already underway for some camps, and others, like Cincinnati Recreation Center programs, begin enrolling early this month.

Camp directors are preparing for what's expected to be another summer of restrictions, with limited capacity, possibly lower demand, social distancing and face coverings. The good news, according to Elizabeth Cochran, member of the American Camp Association (ACA)-Ohio Local Council of Leaders and executive director at Camp Ernst in Burlington, Ky., is camps can draw on last year's experiences.

"There have been a number of studies that have come out from the camps that were able to operate in Summer 2020," she says. "Those studies have shown that camps can be operated in a safe manner. We in the camping industry are looking at making sure to implement a number of NPIs - non-pharmaceutical interventions."

She says that means kids and staff will wear masks, activities will occur outside as much as possible, ventilation will be taken into account for indoor spaces, and camps should continue to place and keep kids within cohorts to reduce spread from intermingling. Increased cleaning and sanitizing will occur indoors, too.

Capacity Creeps Up

Camp Ernst, a YMCA camp, is capping capacity at 50% for now, though Cochrane explains camps in Kentucky are still waiting on guidance from the commonwealth on what will be deemed a safe operating capacity. It's possible, she says, that number could increase, but the camp is already placing people on waiting lists for some of its sessions.

The 10-week Cincinnati Recreation Center day camps will see an increase in openings from last year, though still not full capacity. CRC Assistant Director Lathel Bryant says the staff-to-camper ratio this summer will be 1:15. Last summer it was 1:9. Capacity is limited by the indoor spaces available while maintaining COVID protocols, he says.

"The 2021 season ... will look a little different than what we've done in years prior at our traditional camps," says Bryant. "We still plan to provide quality service and safe programs, but the attendance will be a little smaller (and) we'll definitely be practicing all of our COVID protocols."

He says that includes wellness checks in addition to the aforementioned procedures. The CRC will also offer its specialty camps, such as sports camps, this summer.

Overnight Options

Ohio released guidelines for camp operations just as last year's camping season was preparing to begin and some camps were able to open on modified schedules, though some did not. Ohio was also able to open overnight operations last year. Camp directors are expecting similar guidelines from the state this year.

Kentucky never released guidelines for overnight camp last year, only allowing day camps, and hasn't yet said what it plans for this summer.

"We're hoping that is what is going to happen in March," Cochrane says. "What we do have is a lot of industry experts in camping and environmental health who have gotten together and looked at how camps operated last summer and were able to put together a lot of sample guidance that we hope our state will employ."

Supply And Demand

Whether camps will have a supply versus demand issue is a bit of a dance at the moment. As mentioned, some camps have waiting lists. CRC's Bryant expects a full roster, however, he says some recreation centers could end up with one or two unfilled slots. The department won't know until registrations are fully open. Cochrane adds there are still families concerned about sending kids to camp while the pandemic continues. She expects demand this summer won't return to 2019 levels.

Both Cochrane and Bryant aren't expecting COVID to cause trouble filling out staff rosters. The CRC, however, points out aquatic center staff is always in demand.

"Where we find the challenge sometimes is at our aquatic facilities. We're always asking for people who are interested in serving as lifeguards to do so. They can register on www.cincyrec.org."

Some camp counselors in Ohio - those enrolled in Ohio's Professional Registry working at camps licensed by the Ohio Department of Job & Family Services - are able to start getting the COVID-19 vaccine Thursday. This doesn't, however, include all camps. That's different in Kentucky.

"We in Kentucky have been approved formally as people who work with children to get the vaccine," says Cochrane, adding some staff are already getting vaccinated though it won't be a requirement.

Many other types of camps offered by places like museums and arts groups are also expected to move forward with limited capacity. The Cincinnati Museum Center, for example, would normally have space for 1,846 campers, but that's limited to 328 this summer.

"We're excited to welcome campers back in person this summer and are ready to offer our interactive camp experience in a safe way," says Cody Hefner, senior director of marketing and communications. "We know how valuable the supplemental learning Museum Camps provide can be and after more than a year of remote learning this will be a really important educational and social experience for kids."

Copyright 2021 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

Tana Weingartner earned a bachelor's degree in communication from the University of Cincinnati and a master's degree in mass communication from Miami University. Most recently, she served as news and public affairs producer with WMUB-FM. Ms. Weingartner has earned numerous awards for her reporting, including several Best Reporter awards from the Associated Press and the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, and a regional Murrow Award. She served on the Ohio Associated Press Broadcasters Board of Directors from 2007 - 2009.