Camp Walden First Night Campfire
Camp Walden owners Scott Ruthart and Liz Stevens lead the first-night campfire last year.

Kids need camp this summer — now more than ever.

It’s a nagging question without a clear answer right now, leaving scores of kids and parents wondering what they will do this summer.

Camp websites continue to build excitement for the summer by counting the days — some are even tracking the hours, minutes and seconds — until the start of camp.

Lillian Harwin
Lillian Harwin celebrating her birthday at camp last year.

But the reality of whether kids will be tie-dying, playing capture the flag and making s’mores this summer is still up in the air as camp organizers grapple with whether it will be safe for kids to gather amid the COVID-19 pandemic or if they will even be allowed to open.

“One day we’re like, ‘This is going to happen,’ and the next day we think there’s no possible way we can have camp,” said Scott Ruthart, who along with his wife, Liz Stevens, are the directors of Camp Walden, in Cheboygan, Michigan.

One thing that is certain? Kids need camp this summer — now more than ever.

It’s been seven weeks since Michigan’s governor issued a stay-at-home order, preventing kids from physically hanging out with friends or participating in athletics and other extracurricular activities. With summer quickly approaching, campers are eagerly waiting to hear if camp will be canceled, too.

For now, an entire industry awaits guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with direction from state and local agencies. In the meantime, many camps, Walden included, are moving forward with planning for the summer as they usually would but with an additional layer of contingency planning.

Others have already made the decision not to open. Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp sent a letter to families earlier this month announcing the cancellation of camp, and Interlochen Center for the Arts switched to an online-only platform for its summer programming.

Those who have not called off camp are thinking about a variety of scenarios that could play out as a result of the pandemic. For example, camp directors are pondering a later start date if opening in June isn’t feasible. They’re considering if social distancing is required, what it would look like, or if it’s even possible. How would they implement more stringent cleaning and sanitizing, and what would happen if there was an outbreak?

Camp Walden Staff
Camp Walden

“There are so many factors to consider,” said Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell, the director of Camp Ramah in Canada. “We’re trying to stay open by thinking creatively and staying agile. At the same time, we’re taking very seriously the strong chance that we won’t be able to safely run camp at all this summer.”

While no one is willing to say it publicly, the idea of camps starting in June is becoming more and more unlikely. While delaying the start date is an option, nobody is rushing to decide. All this uncertainty should become clearer when the CDC provides guidelines, which according to the American Camp Association, are expected in early May.

“We feel we owe it to our community to really think it through given the ever-unfolding picture of this virus,” Bendat-Appell said. “One of, if not the worst, outcomes for camps would be to run and then have to shut down.”

Walden Director Liz Stevens said there’s a lot of pent up desire to get kids out of the house and doing something active and social. “Camp is an amazing outlet for that,” she said. “It’s ironic. Camp is probably the best cure for social isolation, and yet because it’s such a communal and intimate space, it’s also a potentially unhealthy place this summer.”

Lillian Harwin, a freshman at Walled Lake Northern High School, is the kind of teen who lives for camp. She’s been going to Camp Tamarack since she was 7 and has been looking forward to her upcoming Western trip for as long as she can remember.

“When I go to school, what I think about in the back of my head is how many more days until I can go to camp. It gets me through school, knowing I’ll be going back. I’m not thrilled about the fact that I might not be able to go for my seventh year,” she said. “If I can’t go, my birthday will be at home, and I don’t remember the last time that has happened. If camp doesn’t happen, I honestly don’t know what I will do.”

If camps do not open this season, the economic impact could be catastrophic. For some camps, their financial security depends on running each summer. As soon as one summer season ends, a camp is already spending money on staffing, infrastructure, insurance, maintenance and other things to get ready for the next summer, according to Stevens.

“If camps cancel, most camps, ourselves included, will refund families’ tuition, but we’ve already been spending that tuition for half the year,” Stevens said. “It’s a potentially existential crisis for every camp I know of. It’s pretty clear that not every summer camp is going to survive this crisis because there is such a fundamental disruption in the business model.

“Do we think if we don’t run this summer, Camp Walden will go away? No, not even close. It will make the next few years a little financially precarious. But, I think if we don’t have camp, it’s going to be the best and safest decision we could have made, and, in the long run, it’s going to benefit everyone.”

Stevens added that their decision will be made based on the health and wellness of their campers and not their pocketbooks.

From a purely business perspective, the earlier a camp cancels, the better, in terms of preserving and safeguarding the camp’s financial futures, Bendat-Appell said.

“However, these are not just businesses, so we’re really aware of how important camp is for our families and our campers,” he said. “Now, more than ever, our kids need camp and so we feel we owe it to them to keep going until it’s clear that it’s no longer viable.”

See what other local camps are saying below:

JCC Day Camps

Judy Loebl, assistant executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit, said they are in constant contact with the American Camp Association for all the latest guidelines and recommendations.

“If we can do it in a safe way, we’d like to be open for all, if not part, of the summer. Obviously, we’ll have to wait and see how we can do it safely and if the guidelines are doable.”

Last year, approximately 550 campers attended JCC Day Camps.

Tamarack Camps

Camp leadership did not respond to multiple phone calls or emails for this article. On April 22, Tamarack sent an email to families stating in part:

“Emotionally, we are eager to board the bus and begin the summer; medically, we are uncertain if and when that might even be a possibility. We recognize that we are facing an unprecedented and complex situation. On an ongoing basis, we are following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and working closely with our medical team, public health authorities and experts in the field. As various locations work through their ‘hot spot’ status and more insight is shared, we are ascertaining when we can safely run camp. This information is being thoroughly processed and intensely analyzed. “We anticipate an update on all of our summer programs within the upcoming weeks. Please note that, until final decisions have been reached, no additional payments are necessary (and auto payments will be suspended).”

Willoway Day Camp

Owners Arnie and Lorraine Fisher said as long as the guidelines allow for it, they are planning on running camp.

“It’s all maybes, but we’re optimistic, and we’re planning for summer. We have the staff, we have the facility, and we have the ability to be up and running in a short time,” said Lorraine Fisher, adding that if camps are allowed to open and social distancing is required, “We have 16 acres. I think we can figure it out.”

Last summer, 500 campers attended Willoway.