COLUMBIA — It’s a summertime rite of passage for thousands of South Carolina children: Tromping across athletic fields, jumping into lakes, horseback riding through woodlands, and gathering around fires to share songs and stories.
But as the novel coronavirus maintains its grip on everyday life, overseers of summer camp programming around the state worry the social distancing guidelines and other restrictions could hamper this year’s offerings.
“If anybody ever needed it at any time, it would be now. And that’s our hope and prayer, that we can still have it for them,” said Angela Gordon Sullivan, director of programming and staff development at Camp Chatuga in Mountain Rest in the state's northwest corner.
Yet even if camps such as hers, which occupies 60 acres surrounded by Sumter National Forest, are able to launch, alongside the iconic images of summer fun will likely be stark reminders of the disease.
More than 20 million youths across the country attend day and overnight camps, generating more than $27 billion in revenue and providing 1.5 million jobs during the season, according to industry estimates.
At Sullivan’s Oconee County camp, registration is between $945 and $3,930 per child. But it’s hard for her and others in the industry to speak with certainty about what the summer might hold, as they await revised U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols, expected to be released in May.
Sullivan said Camp Chatuga will make “month-to-month” decisions. Maybe sessions can be held in July only, or pushed into August, for instance.
“If it looks too much like it’s going to be a restriction on what camp is all about, that’s going to affect whatever decision we make too,” she said.
Close quarters are a staple of the overnight summer camp experience, from communal eating in dining halls to sleeping in bunk beds or tents. Many are also located in rural areas, which creates concerns about exposure and access to personal protective equipment.
“I think we’re hopeful that there will be access to testing and we’re just really encouraging camps that are thinking about doing this differently to think about their communicable disease planning,” said Association of Camp Nursing Executive Director Tracey Gaslin. Her organization and the American Camping Association are working with federal officials to craft a revised set of guidelines.
“There’s a different answer depending on what part of the country you speak of, as much as we’d like for there to be that simplicity around this,” Gaslin said.
Gaslin has been speaking with industry officials around the country via webinars and other means, and she hears one concern repeatedly.
“If we’re going to do try to do some form of camp, will there be PPE available? Well, there has to be,” she said. “We’re really working to figure that piece out, and they also have very similar questions as everybody else. ‘How might you do it?’ ”
Like school districts that have gone virtual, it’s possible camps could take on a similar look. The American Camping Association recently published a resource guide for using Zoom, Google Chat and other online meeting sites to supplement in-person experiences.
Sarah Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Charleston County’s parks and recreation commission, said its slate of summer camp programming remains intact but “there are still many unknowns for us at this point.” Sessions there are set to start on June 8.
In the state’s capital city, hundreds of kids every year take advantage of summer enrichment activities through its parks and recreation department. Director Randy Davis hopes 2020 will be no different, but with Columbia’s playgrounds, swimming pools and other venues currently closed, the June 10 start date remains uncertain.
“We follow the lead of our public officials and we will go according to their directions. We’ll look at all options and go with what’s in the best interests of the public,” Davis said.
On Wednesday, Gov. Henry McMaster and Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said schools won't reopen this year, and officials are still evaluating what that could mean for organized sports and other activities.
Yet one Upstate camp has already called off its programming.
Fellowship Camp and Conference Center, located on Lake Greenwood, began offering summer getaway in 1949. It’s part of Camping Ministries of the Carolinas.
For the first time, residential camp operations are being suspended, Executive Director Kevin Cartee announced on its Facebook page last week.
“Our strong commitment to the health and safety of our campers, and our desire to be financially responsible with both the short-term and long-term mission of this ministry, makes this the right decision for this summer,” he said.