Youth camps in Texas will be allowed to open this summer as the state allows more businesses to resume operations during the coronavirus pandemic, officials announced Monday.
As part of the state's second stage of reopening, Gov. Greg Abbott said day and overnight camps, as well as youth sports, can open on May 31 as long as they follow safety protocols to limit the spread of COVID-19.
"Let's be clear, COVID-19 still exists in Texas. Our goal is to find ways to coexist with COVID-19 as safely as possible," Abbott said during a press conference.
The announcement comes days after the state saw its largest single-day spike in new reported cases — more than 1,800 — which Abbott attributed to an increase in people taking tests.
Under guidelines issued by the state, camp operators will need to screen staff and campers for the common symptoms of COVID-19 on a daily basis and should consider requiring them to wear cloth face coverings.
State officials and guidelines released by the American Camp Association Monday also recommend that campers and staff be separated into smaller groups for the duration of each session, treating each cohort as its own "household." Members of the group can remain in close contact with each other but should practice social distancing from other groups at camp.
The association's guidelines, which were developed by an outside environmental health group, also recommend staggering bathing and dining times to allow these groups to maintain as much physical distance from each other as possible. Staff and campers should also wash their hands before and after all activities, the guidelines said.
While the association has not taken a position on whether it's safe for camps to open in the US, camp directors told BuzzFeed News not all camps will or should operate this summer.
"I feel like if they have a choice, then they really should choose to not gather children together during a pandemic," Joel Van Egbert, camp director at the Cal-Wood Education Center in Jamestown, Colorado, told BuzzFeed News.
Even though children infected with COVID-19 have generally experienced more mild symptoms, they aren't immune to the disease and could spread the virus to others who are more at risk.
Van Egbert said while some summer programs that provide daycare for families with working parents may need to stay open, he doesn't think it's worth it for overnight camps to open right now, given the risks of bringing large groups of children and adults together from different communities.
"It makes me worried for kids...but in all honesty, it makes me really nervous for the institution of summer camp," he said. "The last thing that I would ever want is for summer camp to be looked back on in history — or in the fall — as part of the reason that we have a second outbreak."
But for other camp directors like Steve Baskin, the owner and director of Camp Champions in Marble Falls, Texas, the camp experience may be more important this year than ever before — even though it will look and feel different because of the health crisis.
"I see a group of kids who have had their lives disrupted. They’ve been separated from their friends and peer groups, and they're in households where adults are understandably as anxious as they've ever been," Baskin told BuzzFeed News. "I think I can help parents who believe that the benefits to their children in camp is worth any anxiety or risk associated with this pandemic."
Baskin said that along with following the guidelines issued by the camp association and the state of Texas, his staff will follow a set of protocols he has been developing with the guidance of epidemiologists and public health experts. He expects to start welcoming campers on June 7.
His plans include potentially closing bathrooms during activities and, during bathroom breaks, assigning a staff person to ensure that campers are washing their hands for 20 seconds. Staff members who are not part of a cohort will be required to wear a mask when they can't keep a 6-foot distance from campers, like when they're hooking them up to a safety harness for the climbing wall or serving food.
Baskin said he hasn't finalized a policy for whether the campers, which at Camp Champions include second- to eighth-graders, should be required to wear masks. He added that expecting children to responsibly and properly cover their faces isn't realistic.
"Trying to get an 8-year-old boy or girl to wash their hands and wear a mask, and count on that happening is a fool’s errand," he said.
In addition to implementing strict distancing and cleaning protocols at camp, Baskin said parents will be expected to keep their children under home quarantine for at least two weeks after camp. If they're not willing to do that, or can't keep their children away from elderly household members or those with underlying health conditions, they shouldn't be sending the kids to camp, he said.
"We should assume that everyone returns home as an asymptomatic contagious person, because I would not do this if I believed that we would be sending kids out there to then visit their loved ones in a nursing home," Baskin said. "It's not worth it."
For Van Egbert in Colorado, despite his personal decision not to hold summer camp this year, he said he trusts that there will be camp leaders that figure out how to make it work during a pandemic.
Still, whether directors decide to open this summer or not, Van Egbert said all camp operators will still need to be thinking about what the 2021 season may look like, if it happens at all, and if there are ways to run camp remotely.
"I’m OK if it takes a few years for us to get back around the campfire," he said. "I really implore and challenge camps to come up with a way to get that summer camp feeling to happen at home, because if they halfway succeed, then they’ve done something monumental."