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Summer camp resorts to "virtual campfires" during pandemic

COVID-19 puts summer camp plans on hold
COVID-19 puts summer camp plans on hold 10:54

With schools still closed and large gatherings still widely discouraged during the coronavirus pandemic, the fate of many summer camps is up in the air. While some camps are still working to figure out the logistics of welcoming kids, camp owner and director Mitch Reiter said the "many unknowns" of the pandemic have made it impossible to welcome campers safely.

"I don't think there was much choice," he told CBSN anchors Vladimir Duthiers and Anne-Marie Green. "We put a lot of thought into it and talked with a lot of experts and other camp directors."

Reiter runs Camp Towanda in Pennsylvania, which served as the location for the 2001 comedy, "Wet Hot American Summer." 

The camp normally operates for seven weeks, but Reiter said even opening it for five weeks would bring problems.

"That is a lot to ask of everyone to stay on task. Counselors don't go off on their night off or their day off. It's tough. Even the food suppliers told me no guarantees," he said. 

Even during a normal summer, camps have to prepare for challenges running from poison ivy to severe weather to emotional challenges like homesickness. 

"I think this situation is just larger than any of that," he said. "It goes, really, beyond finances and socialization issues… and it's still evolving." 

"Not to be able to really get close to people, figuratively and literally, would be challenging," Reiter said, adding that many counselors this year, specifically those in college, would be dealing with the challenge of figuring out what their academic semester plans are as many colleges remain closed. 

He felt they "could not create a bubble" of safety, unable to track support staff and others who come in on a day-to-day basis and run the risk of them possibly bringing a COVID-19 infection into the camp. 

"We weren't confident in being able to manage the program," he said. 

Reiter has set up a virtual camp in the meantime, "to keep everyone engaged and connected."

The camp groups, divided by age, have Zoom conference calls to be able to see one another. Reiter and his wife plan out "virtual campfires" and other activities for campers to have face time and stay entertained. 

"We're right now in the midst of putting that all together and really creating something that will keep us together as a camp family until we get to next year," he said.

However, Reiter acknowledged the upcoming years would be different from the past, and that he would "figure that out and get educated on it" over the next year.

"I imagine our infirmary, our health center will need to be set up differently. And possibly our mess hall dining room. Maybe the structure in the bunks," he said. "There is a lot to be considered."

Even the way kids are transported to camp will rely on the future safety of commuting there, specifically for those campers that fly to get to Towanda. 

Reiter said he would be involved with his fellow camp directors and the American Camp Association to figure out what the future would look like, but for now, parents have been understanding.

While he gave parents the option of a refund versus rolling over their payment to next year, Reiter said most have elected to push it — a big help to a camp trying to figure out its finances in a summer of unknowns. 

"A camp like ours is a giant family," he said. "The outpouring of love and support and empathy was beyond anything I could imagine."

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