Outdoors

Summer Camps Face Options: Shut Down, Go Virtual or Balance Risks

Flathead area sleepaway camps take different approaches to a pandemic summer

For the first time in the 75-year history of Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp (FLBC), the paddles that propel canoes, kayaks and paddleboards around the lake are clean. After every outing, used paddles are placed in the oar equivalent of a laundry hamper, wiped down and sanitized.

It’s not something that immediately came to mind for camp director Margie Fiedler when she considered what changes would be made this summer.

“What I didn’t think about was how do you deal with life jackets, how do you sanitize bows and arrows, what do you do for basketballs,” Fiedler said. “But everything is just amazingly clean.”

FLBC is one of nearly a dozen overnight camps in the Flathead Valley that has spent months weighing the risks of opening up for campers and families this summer during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The American Camping Association (ACA) issued a COVID-19 Resource Guide to help camps work through the decision of whether or not to open. For those that do, the Centers for Disease Control has recommendations for operating.

According to the ACA, around 20 million children in the U.S attend summer camps each year, and the industry generates $18 million while employing more than a million seasonal workers.

The FLBC board of directors began meeting weekly starting in March, when Montana recorded the first cases of the novel coronavirus, to see if they could find a way to balance revenue loss and camper and staff safety in order to operate in some form. After feedback from the health department, governor’s office and other camps in the region and nationwide, FLBC decided to move forward with an abbreviated retreat style of family camp for the summer.

“We thought this was best by limiting the numbers to be as safe as possible,” Fiedler said. “Families have to take temperatures for 14 days before coming, and are supposed to stay in their unit as much as possible.”

Weekly talks with the health department gave Fiedler the confidence that she could safely operate the facilities. Changes were made to how food services operated (“I can’t stand how much garbage we have from individual milks and individual snacks”), cleaning protocols were tightened and canoe paddles were sanitized.

Drastic staffing changes also had to be taken. Fiedler said that 57 staff members were slated to come work on site for the summer, but that was reduced to a mere 20. For the first time in camp history, staff is not allowed to go offsite for the duration of the summer.

“It’s like take every precaution you can, even if you don’t have to,” said Fiedler.

Originally, 450 youths signed up to spend part of a week at FLBC this summer, about half the number of onsite campers from 2019. The cutting of youth programming for the summer, as well as wilderness excursions and day programs at 19 churches around Montana, has led to a significant drop in revenue.

Natalie Gates teaches Ben Weaver pottery-making at Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp on July 9, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Summer programs, retreats and sales from the camp store make up almost 70% of FLBC’s budget, which last year was close to $1.2 million. Fiedler said they are already looking at a deficit of at least $470,000 for this year, half of which came from being closed during the spring.

FLBC received a Paycheck Protection Program loan as well as a grant from the state, but if fall and winter retreats don’t fill out with the expected numbers, the budget will continue to tighten.

Fiedler has some hope that donations, which tend to increase in times of crises, will help in the lean year.

On the south side of Flathead Lake, Camp Marshall, in Polson, made a more dramatic decision to shut down for the summer.

“We’re keeping an online presence, not really even calling it camp,” said Camp Director David Campbell. “The very first time we did a virtual campfire, we had maybe eight people watch the video.”

This was the first summer back for Campbell, who also was the camp director from 1998 to 2012. Never in 25 years has he had to deal with anything quite like this.

“Camps in general are exceptional at receiving legal guardianship of young people,” said Campbell. “We’re really good at working with the health of young people, but a pandemic is a very different thing”

ACA accredited camps must have extensive health screening protocols, relationships with local health departments and contingency plans for possible disease outbreaks. Campbell said that if an outbreak occurred at camp, the likelihood of containing is too low for his comfort.

Instead, Camp Marshall went to an exclusively virtual format.

Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp on the west shore of Flathead Lake on July 9, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Feedback has been mixed according to Campbell, with some families deciding that after months of online school their kids didn’t need to spend more time in front of screens. However, participation has been slowing increasing each week — 174 people tuned in to a recent virtual campfire, which featured a whiteboard with drawn on logs and flames.

Between keeping only a bare bones staff of four on site and cutting expenses as close to zero as possible, Campbell has been able to minimize losses, but still understands what skipping a summer of camp could cost.

“I don’t know how we’re going to [operate next year] —a very real chance might be that I lose my job, but that’s OK,” said Campbell.  “Camp directors are willing to sacrifice the summer for the sake of a child’s safety.”

Back at FLBC, Fiedler said that even with the camp running at a deficit, she’s confident they will be able to make it through 2021, but beyond that, it will depend on what the future of summer camps looks like.

“Camping is a risk … every day you send people out whitewater rafting, you send them out rock climbing, you send them out backpacking, sailing, swimming anything, you’re taking on that risk,” said Fielder. “This is just a looming risk over everybody, it’s always on my mind and on my leadership staff.”

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