Hundreds of Christian camps across the country are making tough calls about reopening this summer--decisions that affect thousands of campers and their families.
Although the decisions vary, shaped by region and the pandemic's severity and the views of stakeholders, many camps have decided to open.
A spokeswoman for the Christian Camp & Conference Association (CCCA) tells CBN News that less than half of the CCCA's 872 members have canceled camp sessions for the summer. Instead, they've used CDC guidelines and worked with local health authorities to re-create safe practices during the pandemic.
Dr. Rob Ribbe, the director of HoneyRock Camp in Three Lakes, Wisconsin, says the process began in March as the coronavirus hit the US. The HoneyRock staff began constantly meeting and praying.
In mid-April, they surveyed registered camper parents to determine whether or not they wanted to send their kids to camp. "An overwhelming majority--80 plus percent said 'absolutely,'" said Ribbe.
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The camp decided to bring its summer staff in several weeks late and hold camp for just four weeks instead of the usual seven.
Ribbe said the goal was to re-create the essence of camp while adjusting to the pandemic.
"We've had to make face coverings part of the program," he explained. "We've created cleaning kinds of stations in every activity area so after you go canoeing and use a paddle and life jacket you have to clean it off."
HoneyRock also asked campers and their families to isolate for 14 days before campers arrived at camp and to take temperature checks daily for seven days before arrival.
The risks for campers and staff are clear. Already, safety precautions have failed at several Christian camps. They include Kanakuk Kamp near Branson, Missouri where the local health department has announced that 82 campers, counselors, and staff in the teenage "K-2" camp tested positive for COVID-19.
For camps that have decided to cancel sessions altogether the process has been difficult in other ways. Rev. John Gray, the executive director of Camp Hope Haven in Virginia Beach, laments the loss of typical camper hustle and bustle as he looks at the quiet property.
"This would normally be a loud and active place, lots of fun," he said, "but as you can see, not any of that is going on."
The camp is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year and Gray describes it as a "staple for the local community." In particular, Hope Haven reaches children from low-income homes.
The staff made its decision to close camp this summer after determining that COVID safety practices would limit their ability to engage with campers in a meaningful way. Gray says ongoing discussions kept ending with one conclusion.
"It just led to the same result 'we can't do this effectively' and if we do it--and we would do it poorly--that's what will be remembered--not that we tried to accommodate this unique situation," he said.
Hope Haven is running one in-person activity this summer-- a leadership program for teenagers that are considering becoming volunteer leaders. And it's hoping for a vaccine for the virus in the next year so that it can welcome campers again next summer.
"We really see the need to have a high level of caution," said Gray. "We're talking about children. If you're a parent and you think about sending your children to an environment—it needs to be unquestionably safe."
CCCA president Gregg Hunter says a few camps have pivoted to online programming for kids and their parents in lieu of in-person sessions.
"What they're finding in some cases is that parents, while they're hesitant to put their kids in front of a screen again, they say 'this is camp though and we'll allow you to be in front of a screen for a certain amount of time," he said.
These activities often feature online content that then encourages children to do an outside activity.
"It's impossible to duplicate camp virtually—because you're outside and you're running and playing and you're with your friends and you're in the cabin time and you're hearing the chapel talk," said Hunter. "But some are coming up with very creative ideas to engage the kids."
Ribbe says HoneyRock currently has a waiting list of campers hoping to attend its limited sessions. His staff, he says, is "fired up" to invest in children who are struggling with the challenges of the pandemic.
"I just think their readiness and their openness and their commitment and sacrifice, as well as the desperateness of the times, just sets us up to have a really transformational summer here at camp—and that's what we're praying for, hoping for and really believe is going to happen," said Ribbe.
Hunter says the majority of CCCA camps, which include a variety of sizes and denominational backgrounds, had a strong year in 2019 in terms of attendance and budgets. "I would have predicted that 2020 would be the best summer ever before COVID hit," he said.
Now, he's praying for wisdom for camp leaders in the midst of an era that no one could have predicted. And he's expecting pent-up demand for camp when the pandemic ends.
"I expect a spike when COVID is gone," Hunter said. "I expect a spike in attendance for camp all across the country and probably around the world."