BAYSVILLE, ONT.—The red sign at the front gate of Camp New Moon says “STOP. Call our office before entering. Masks required beyond this point.”
A mother pulls off the cottage country road to deliver a late arrival, who hoists two big duffel bags on her tiny shoulders and walks down the driveway for her initial assessment.
“She’s double vaxxed,” the mom shouts with equal measures of confidence and relief.
Summer camps have changed as many open for their first summer of the COVID-19 era after being shuttered last year when the first wave of the pandemic abated and the world waited for vaccines. Without vaccines, there would be no camps.
All of New Moon’s adult and summer student staff have had one dose and 93 per cent two doses. Across Ontario, almost 60 per cent of kids 12-17 have had their first shot while parents await federal vaccine approval for younger children.
The new camp rules aren’t much different from schools when they were open for in-class learning, where students were placed in consistent groups, or cohorts.
“The kids are so good and so accustomed to this,” says Jack Goodman, owner of Camp New Moon and a professor of cardiac health and exercise at the University of Toronto.
At camp, there are cabin groups of a dozen or so children and their counsellors who remain separated from others through physical distancing; staff groups (for example, kitchen and office); pre-arrival COVID tests; no non-essential visitors (including a Star reporter who conducts interviews at the gate); screening and logging of essential visitors such as food delivery drivers; and a detailed daily screening of every camper for potential symptoms before breakfast.
Kids can be seen promptly by the doctor or two nurses on staff. At campfires, kids sit in their cabin groups of eight to 14 people physically distanced from other groups.
Gone are group excursions into town for ice cream and parental visitation days, which is probably for the best since a few kids are always left crying when mom and dad leave. Those visits will be virtual instead.
While guidelines don’t mandate it, New Moon is keeping camp counsellors on-site for their days off (vaccinations excepted) and administered up-the-nostril PCR tests of everyone on the fourth day of camp, just to be safe.
“We’ve pivoted a lot of things,” says Goodman, who moonlighted over the last year as chair of an Ontario Camps Association task force that worked out detailed, step-by-step COVID protocols with the province’s chief medical officer of health.
They include providing camps with rapid tests, no mixing of cohorts until after 14 days providing there have been no infections, single groups only on wilderness expeditions such as canoe trips, guidelines for isolating kids and groups should cases arise, and a requirement that every camp have an outbreak plan.
An outbreak is considered two or more lab-confirmed cases with an epidemiological link within 14 days. Closing a camp should be considered if kids in two or more groups test positive, providing they could have “reasonably acquired” their infection in the camp within the previous 14 days, the guidelines state. Local medical officers have the final say on that.
As of Friday morning, the sprawling Simcoe-Muskoka District Health Unit home to a majority of overnight summer camps had not received any reports of cases from camps.
“I think the systems we put in place are very robust,” says Ontario’s new chief medical officer, Dr. Kieran Moore, who spent six years as a summer camp physician. “We’ve done our very best to make sure that all camps open safely with good support from their local public health agencies.”
Doing more things outdoors is encouraged, from skit nights to meals, arts and crafts.
“We are taking every challenge and trying to make it into an opportunity,” Goodman tells the Star as a counsellor strolls past with a plate of grilled cheese sandwiches, veggies and home-cut fries.
Camp New Moon, for example, added three large tents for dining to allow for proper distancing between groups and bought 30 extra picnic tables for its waterfront property on Lake of Bays.
“It’s nice to have another covered space for when there’s a downpour,” Goodman adds shortly before a sudden afternoon thunderstorm roars through the Huntsville area.
About 20 per cent of overnight camps didn’t open or switched to a different focus or a later start to allow more time to prepare, says the Ontario Camps Association. More than 400 camps typically provide summer escapes for about 500,000 kids.
Olympia Sports Camp on Oxbow Lake northeast of Huntsville has transitioned from a kids sports camp — guest athletes have included former Toronto Raptor Danny Green, now of the Philadelphia 76ers — to a spot where families can rent cabins. Upgrades were made over the winter to get ready.
“The pandemic gave us a chance to get some needed renovations done,” says Greg Rogers, associate director of Olympia.
There’s also a new summer chef whose full-time gig is teaching in the culinary arts program at Humber College in Toronto. Meals are individually packaged for guests and can be eaten at new picnic tables — each cabin has its own designated near the dining hall — in the cabins or in gazebos.
With border closures and the third wave of COVID-19 hitting hard over the winter, it was impossible to line up the usual array of sports help, says Greg Rogers, associate director of Olympia.
“A lot of the pro athletes come in from the States and you have to line those guys up well in advance.”
One challenge has been marketing the cabins to people who associate the camp simply with kids and sports. While most weekends are booked, there are weekday stays available — a rarity in a pandemic year when rental cottages are hard to come by.
Olympia is hoping to resume offering programs for school boards in September and will hold its three-week leadership course in late summer for teens who want to return as counsellors, making sure the camp has enough trained staff for next summer.
Despite the changes, close your eyes to the masks and the signs about physical distancing and other new procedures, and the summer camp experience remains much the same with swimming, canoeing, sailing, rope courses and all the other standbys, says Goodman.
“I still hear the same sounds. I hear the same laughter. Kids are doing the same stuff. They will show the adults how to rebound.”