“This is obviously a difficult day for all of us who love camps,” wrote the Ontario Camps Association in a note to its members on May 19. The government of Ontario announced in a press conference that overnight camps will not be allowed to operate for the duration of the 2020 season, with further decisions yet to be made about day camps. For all, this will be the first summer without camp in session since they were founded. For most, that’s decades. For some, it’s literally approaching a century or more.
What families are facing
There’s a broad range of opinion and, certainly, we’ll hear all of it in the coming days. It’s important to remember that, well, it’s complicated, with more factors than most of us are aware. That doesn’t diminish the disappointment. Many parents were seeing it as a welcome and long-awaited respite from what has been an extremely difficult time. For campers and staff, it would have been a chance to be normal again, or at least something like it. For all, the thought of a summer without camp is hard to bear.
What camps know, however, is that opening safely, in a way that could offer a quality camper experience, was at best far more easily said than done. “The irony is that camps are the antithesis of social distancing,” said Mark Diamond, vice-president of the Ontario Camps Association and co-director and co-owner of Camp Manitou, as reported in The Star. “You feel such guilt in pulling away a summer that is so necessary, and then you go, ‘but this could be my own kid, would I really send them to camp?’”
Overnight camps—which the initial notice from the Ford government was principally about—operate for the most part in rural areas. If they all were to operate at capacity, in Ontario alone it would mean in excess of 400,000 campers arriving in successive waves to communities with very little health-care infrastructure, and which could be overwhelmed in an instant. Add to that the staff, the food deliveries, the parents dropping off and picking up, the maintenance staff. Consider the bussing companies, tasked with getting campers safely up and back in busses that weren’t built with distancing in mind. It’s a lot of people moving around in vulnerable ways within a particularly vulnerable part of our world.
What camps are facing
For overnight camps in Ontario at least, the difficult decision has been made for them, and they won’t be operating. Which means that they face the biggest challenge of all: fiscal survival. Margins are thin with little cash reserve. Operating costs are huge, and the time to offset them is the summer. Moreover, many of the costs are met prior to the summer even starting. Not only are camps going to lose revenue, they have already conceivably spent the fees that they received from registrations in anticipation of the 2020 season. Once the shock of a summer without camp settles in, parent’s thoughts will understandably turn to refunds. The fact is, however, that much of the money is no longer there. Finding a way to provide refunds, for some camps, will mean literally the end of camp, not just this year, but forever. For some, sadly, that’s an outcome that has already been realised.
What you can do
Camp is important for what it is, and for what it means in our lives. It’s not like a cruise or a trip to Disney World, where you go once (or, ok, maybe twice). Camp is, truly, for life. It’s a relationship between people, and across generations, who share the values, the traditions, and the priorities that each camp embodies. A summer without it will be hard, but a life without it, we’d venture, would be much, much harder.
That’s why it’s important to consider how we all respond. First, camps need our support—staff have given their time and talents to preparing for a summer that, ultimately, won’t happen. Second, they need our understanding, this by considering our options when it comes to reimbursement. Instead of a refund, it could mean accepting a credit toward future programs. Better yet, it could mean offering 2020 fees as a donation to help support the life and longevity of the camp itself, helping ensure that, come 2021, there’s a camp to go back to.
Not all families have that kind of flexibility, and camps will understand that, too. But this is a moment like the one that ends the holiday movie It’s a Wonderful Life. There’s a run on the bank, and while George Bailey is understanding, the community is, too. Because they know it’s not about a moment, but life, and in the end they save the little ol’ savings and loan. For us, now, for real, it’s time to think in those terms. Because the alternative, frankly, is unthinkable.
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