Hill Country camps are getting a vision of what this summer could look like after the governor authorized their opening and state and national agencies released guidance for them.
While some local camps have decided to open, others have opted to cancel activities this summer, with others still evaluating the information.
“We want to see this back into operation and we know the camp management is excited to get back too,” said Charlie McIlvain, executive director at Kerrville Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Kerr County summer camps traditionally have created a $32-million-dollar annual economic impact for the city.
McIlvain said one factor that has delayed the start of camp includes the labor force — many staffers are international students, and it’s been a challenge to get those individuals here.
The virus certainly has played havoc with the schedules, but the pandemic itself is keeping activities at bay, he said.
Camps got a green light of sorts on Monday when Gov. Greg Abbott announced day and overnight camps could open May 31.
At the same time, the state released Minimum Standard Health Protocols to guide day and residential camp operators as well as families of participants.
Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released camp guidelines and the American Camp Association in cooperation with the YMCA of the USA released a Camp Operations Guide.
All these documents specifically address operating in the COVID-19 pandemic and local camp officials are using this guidance as they form their plans.
“We’re doing our due diligence,” Hermann Sons Life Camp Executive Camp Director Ian Brassett said.
Brassett said after reviewing the standards he is letting his supervisors know what camp would look like and together they will determine if it’s viable to run their program this summer.
The camp typically serves between 2,000 and 3,000 children and has up to 70 staff members.
Camp La Junta in Hunt plans to offer two, 20-day sessions and two, 10-day sessions concurrently.
Those replace the usual 26-day and 13-day sessions, respectively. The camp is offering refund or roll over options for those families that do not want to send their children to camp.
Camp La Junta Director Scott Fineske said the camp will adjust its programming to encourage social distancing, and leaders will evaluate each activity to make sure it complies with standards.
“For us, it’s very exciting to be able to have camp,” Fineske said. “Now, in this uncertain time, in this crazy time that our kids have just been going through, it’s going to provide a little bit of normalcy to their summertime.”
Camp Mystic in Hunt plans to have three, 13-day sessions as opposed to the usual 30-day sessions. The camp’s new location on Cypress Lake will offer two, 13-day sessions.
Camp Mystic co-owner and co-director Dick Eastland said the goal is to operate in the best interests of the health and safety of the girls.
Guidelines related to opening day, camp precautions and staff restrictions are posted on the website. Eastland said they are moving forward in a cautious and careful manner.
“(We’re) going to have a blast this summer, hopefully, with no cases,” he said.
The H.E. Butt Foundation on May 14 announced it will cancel all traditional summer programs in the Frio River Canyon. This includes the Laity Lodge Retreat Center, youth camp and family camp. All Foundation Camps are closed through the end of July.
“As you can imagine we’ve agonized over this decision,” David Rogers, president of H.E. Butt Foundation and Laity Lodge Programs, said in a video statement on the foundation’s website. “... We have erred on the side of caution and safety. We are making a decision that we believe helps protect our campers, our staff and our families and communities.”
Rogers said the protocols for hosting large groups at this time compromise “so much of what makes camp camp and what makes the Canyon a place of restoration.”
Although the organization won’t have a typical summer, its teams are working on ideas to bring people together as soon as possible and will be in touch with the community about updates, Rogers said.
“Our mission is to serve God by cultivating wholeness in people and institutions for the transformation of communities,” he said. “We are not shrinking from our mission at all. It’s just going to be different this summer.”
For those camps choosing to open this year, the state’s minimum health standards outline protocols related to drop-off and pickup; visitors; hygiene in cabins and dining facilities; activity plans; health screenings; and sick staff or campers.
Jane Ragsdale, owner/director of Heart O’ the Hills Summer Camp for Girls, said they will have two three-week terms instead of the usual four-week terms.
She said camp officials are reviewing the guidance from the state and American Camp Association and will strive for best practices in their operation. They will ask staffers and campers to monitor their temperatures for 14 days prior to coming onsite. And camp personnel will take the temperature of everyone who comes through the gate at the Hunt camp and ask screening questions about COVID-19 symptoms.
Ragsdale also said Kerrville Pediatrics and Peterson Health are offering telemedicine so if a camper or staff member gets sick they can consult with a doctor remotely.
In addition to relying on guidance from the state and federal governments and the American Camp Association, camp directors have worked together through this process.
Sandra “Schmitty” Schmitt, director at Camp Honey Creek for Girls in Hunt, said since March area camp directors have gathered weekly through videoconference calls to talk about summer plans in light of the pandemic. The calls grew to include representatives from more than 20 camps statewide.
“It was pretty neat to hear everybody working together and to be able to create a good experience for young people all over Texas,” Schmitt said.
Honey Creek plans to offer two 18-day camp terms. Protocols will include regular sanitizing, social distancing and drive-thru drop-off.
Schmitt expects about 100 girls per term this year, down from the usual 175 to 200.
“Children need it now more than ever,” she said of camp. “... They haven’t been out. They haven’t been able to be with their friends. They haven’t been able to be kids and that’s what they do here. They run and laugh and play with their friends.”
Mo-Ranch in Hunt plans to have six weeklong overnight camp sessions and nine day-camp sessions.
Breanna Larsen, Mo-Ranch’s marketing and communications manager, said because camp already used “family groups,” similar to what the CDC and American Camp Association recommended, the camper groups will experience only slight differences in activities compared with previous summers.
Cleaning and mealtime procedures will undergo the most changes in order to increase sanitization, disinfection and safety features.
The camp is asking families to monitor camper temperatures and keep a log for 14 days prior to their arrival to Mo-Ranch.
“We are so excited to have our campers back at home at Mo,” Larsen said. “We ask for continual grace and patience as we navigate the guidelines and recommendations regarding this ever fluid COVID-19 pandemic.”
With additional reporting by Managing Editor Louis Amestoy.