When Walking Mountains Science Center opened registrations for its annual slate of summer camps on March 3, it only took 27 minutes for every spot to sell out. Similarly, for Mountain Recreation summer camps, parents started registering at 5 a.m., leaving one-third of the camps sold out and many others nearly full by mid-day.
Following a summer where COVID-19 restrictions and public health orders severely limited kids’ academic and social calendars, parents seem to be chomping at the bit to get kids out of the house and into camp this year.
Of course, many COVID-19 restrictions are still in place, which means the summer camps are still battling capacity restrictions. it’s just one reason the camps are experiencing a registration frenzy.
“I think that the biggest reason is just our decreased capacity,” said Paul Abling, the marketing and communications director at Walking Mountains. According to Abling, in a typical (pre-pandemic) summer, Walking Mountains had 650 camp spots available. Last year, it had 260. And this year, with restrictions still in place, it has sold out all available 322 spots, with another 300-plus kids on the camps’ waitlists.
“The bigger issue in the pandemic, and we’ve seen it with the other programs as well, is that people want to get outside in a safe manner and our mission and camps really provide a great outlet to connect with nature,” Abling said. “Also as many parents are looking to go back to more of a normal working situation, there’s a child care need that has typically been fulfilled by camp.”
Especially following a year where kids lost out on many opportunities to socialize and learn with their peers, summer camp represents an opportunity to regain a sense of normalcy.
“Parents want their kids to stay active,” said Eddie Campos, the marketing and communications manager at Mountain Rec. “I think we missed out on a lot this past year and its more important for kids to stay active and enjoy the sports that they love but also to make the lasting social connections that you make in these programs.”
Hoping for the best, preparing for the worst
Regardless of the cause, the pandemic is still making it hard for camps to meet the pent-up demand. While things may be looking better with vaccinations progressing rapidly and cases on the decline, the camps must prepare for a number of scenarios as the COVID-19 situation continues to develop.
Gov. Jared Polis has said all Coloradans 16 and older will be eligible by mid-April, and there’s a possibility that regulators could clear the way for children 12 and older to start getting vaccinated before the fall, although a vaccine for children below 12 isn’t likely to come online until next spring.
“Things are getting better,” Campos said. “We’re still seeing capacities that we have to play with, as far as the summer camps and programs we have to offer, but we’re getting as creative as we can to make sure that every kid gets to enjoy this summer.”
Outside of capacity constraints, camps face challenges with transportation, staffing and facilities.
For both Walking Mountains and Mountain Rec, leaving their main facilities and getting campers outdoors in the community is one of the main perks of their programming. This includes Walking Mountains’ overnight camps at the 10th Mountain Division huts, which weren’t offered last year but will be offered this year in a limited capacity. Remaining transportation restrictions shroud these types of excursions in uncertainty going into the summer season.
As of March 19, Eagle County’s public health order maintains that for businesses, vehicles are a “higher-risk environment.” As such, the number of passengers must be limited to 50%, windows must remain open, certain sanitation practices must be upheld and face coverings must be worn.
“Some of those ways [we’re getting creative] is looking into our spaces, looking into indoor-outdoor offerings across summer camps. It’s looking at transportation, but it’s also looking internally and putting our best foot forward in meeting those protocols, to then possibly even work in reduced protocols,” Campos said.
Mountain Rec recently received a 5-Star Business Certificate from Public Health, recognition of all that its three facilities are doing to meet health-related protocols. This will allow the facilities some exemptions from restrictions, but only once Eagle County moves to Level Blue restrictions.
Even if the summer were to bring a complete lifting of restrictions (which is unlikely at this point), these camps might hit problems with the ability to staff more programs at this point.
“We are contingency planning now. We’re working on, what does it look like if we need to secure more employee housing or bring on more employees?” Abling said. “At the end of the day, we want to offer more camps and help serve the community to the fullest extent possible, so that’s what we’re working on.”
Much of this will be a continuing conversation between Public Health and these camps as the situation develops to ensure that these summer camps operate in the safest and most viable ways possible.
But until more is known, optimism and a sense of excitement loom for the campers, their families and the camp staff. “We’re waiting on what the summer will definitely look like with regard to protocols, but we’re hoping for the best,” Campos said.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at [email protected]