Wooden signs at CYO's Camp Rancho Framasa in Nashville director campers to different facilities. Rancho Framasa had to cancel all programs and activities during the month of June.  Staff photo by Joe Schroeder
Wooden signs at CYO's Camp Rancho Framasa in Nashville director campers to different facilities. Rancho Framasa had to cancel all programs and activities during the month of June. Staff photo by Joe Schroeder
Hilltop Christian Camp had expectations of one of its largest enrollments ever this year, according to camp Manager Ryan Croft.

“We were expecting this to be one of our bigger summers, considering that children have been so cooped up lately during quarantine,” he said.

Yet, Hilltop’s campsites currently only have a few scattered families spread over acres of land.

Brown County, with its well-preserved scenery and abundance of options, has long been an attractive spot for summer campers to spend a week in the woods. There are nine residential summer camps operating in the county.

However, this year, local summer camps have had to alter schedules, make activity adjustments and adjust their facilities and plans in order to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the initial stay-at-home order from Gov. Eric Holcomb was announced, many local summer camps were stuck in a place of uncertainty. Management at camps like Hilltop were unaware of how they would be affected, when they could open and if they could continue preparing for the summer camp season.

“Even into early May, we thought that we would open up by the end of June,” Croft said.

As more information from organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and the American Camping Association came to light, it became clear to Croft and Hilltop employees that the end of June would not be a plausible return time.

After weekly board meetings and consultation advice from the local health department, Hilltop decided to cancel all planned summer camp programs. Croft said that a large part of the decision was made because social distancing guidelines would have affected campers’ enjoyment of outdoor activities and the camping experience.

“Camp wasn’t going to be what kids wanted camp to be,” he said.

Next summer, Hilltop plans to be open to campers again while they celebrate their 75th anniversary. In lieu of young campers flooding the Hilltop site this summer, Croft said that the camp has opted to use this time to improve. Camp employees who were able to stay on payroll through a PPP loan Hilltop received have been painting and doing renovations across their facilities.

In addition to working on camp renovations, some staff members have been assisting family groups who have been renting housing normally used by summer campers from Hilltop. The families staying on site are asked to maintain social distances from both staff and other campers, but are welcome to use camp facilities and participate in activities, Croft said.

Camp Moneto, a Methodist church summer camp, has taken a similar approach to the summer.

Moneto usually hosts camps, retreats and other summer getaway activities for churches, nonprofits and organizations throughout the state. However, its biggest summer events are mostly for students, according to Shane Hartman, senior manager at Impact 2818, a nonprofit that runs camps for the United Methodist Church in Indiana, including Moneto.

“We are a camp that serves anyone and everyone,” he said.

Hartman said Moneto was fully prepared for a busy camp season, but since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States, all previously booked camp groups have been canceled.

With some grant money acquired by the CARES Act, Hartman said that Moneto staff members were able to continue working for the first six weeks of summer. Employees have been helping maintain the property and assist family groups who have rented camping space on the property.

“Things just changed so quickly from week to week,” Hartman said. “We are grateful we were able to keep most of the staff onboard during all this.”

Moneto has asked any families who are at the camp to stay in their assigned areas and to limit unnecessary close interactions with staff. Families are able to wear masks and participate in activities at their own discretion, but employees are required to wear facial coverings when in close proximity with others.

“We’re talking around 50 people within 750 acres of land,” Hartman said. “Also, we have found that the people who are coming are the ones that have no strong feelings about masks or COVID.”

While Moneto and Hilltop were both able to continue renting out facilities for guests, other camps have not been as fortunate.

Mike Nickels owns Camp Palawopec, which offers various summer camp programs for kids. This would have been the camp’s 56th year running summer camps, but Palawopec was forced to cancel many bookings after more reopening information came from the governor.

“It’s just been a lot of phone calls so far this summer, and a lot of disappointed parents and kids,” Nickels said.

Initially, camp leaders believed they would be able to reopen sometime in June. Now, they are shooting to reopen on July 4.

Nickels said a lot of parents have shown concern about sending their kids to camp, but any cancellations Palawopec has received have made room for others who had their May and June bookings canceled.

Because of the uncertainty surrounding the virus in general, the camp does not know exactly what procedure will be, Nickels said. However, he also said that whatever guidelines the CDC and ACA recommend, his camp will strictly follow.

Initially, summer camps were lumped in with other businesses in Phase III of the governor’s reopening plan. However, as new information evolved, the plan adapted, shifting residential camps to be included in Phase V and forcing places like Palawopec to stay closed until July 4 rather than reopening in May or June. The camp’s website says that in retrospect, camp operators were likely too optimistic to believe the governor would keep the original plans.

“They have shown that being outside is a less likely place to spread the virus,” Nickels said. “How they opened up casinos before summer camps, I do not know.”

Catholic Youth Organization’s Camp Rancho Framasa was similarly delayed. After canceling all planned camp programs for May and June, the camp is now shooting to reopen from July 5 to 31.

The July camps will be a lot different than in previous years, according to camp Co-Director Kevin Sullivan. Usually Rancho Framasa would have around 200 campers at a time, but in July, the maximum is going to be 90. Furthermore, the camp normally operates with between 70 and 85 staff members, but this year, only 30 previous employees will be hired.

“We also have discontinued our weeklong programs, which is usually our bread and butter,” Sullivan said. “Rather, campers will be there a max of three days and two nights.”

In addition to changing program length, Rancho Framasa will also offer day camps for locals who want to get out of the house as well as family camps for groups of children and parents who want to do outdoor activities together. “These camps are important, because kids can separate themselves from stress and disconnect from normal life,” Croft said. “They can focus on themselves.”

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