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Summer camps face 'gut-wrenching' call on whether to open

Camp Pinnacle announced this week that it would open at reduced capacity and with programming changes to protect campers and staffers. Camp Pinnacle announced this week that it would open at reduced capacity and with programming changes to protect campers and staffers.

The summer camp industry was already teetering on the edge of collapse last week when state Rep. Chuck McGrady pressed the Cooper administration for answers on how camps could open.

Days and then weeks passed as camp directors anxiously awaited word from the government on how or when they could open for the summer season.
“The first push was to try to get some clarity and we understood that most of the camps were saying (they needed guidelines by) May 1 or May 8,” said McGrady, who came to the area from Atlanta in the 1990s as owner and operator of Falling Creek Camp in Green River. “Certainly by May 8 they needed to know what it meant and what was the phase 2 reopening going to look like.
“Initially the Trump administration said it was going to put out guidance by May 1,” causing Cooper and state public health officials to hold off, McGrady said. “But then the Trump administration, per usual, a few days after May 1, said, ‘Never mind, we’re not going to do anything.’”
That left the Cooper administration scrambling to draft camp guidelines. The recommendations finally came out last Friday, May 15, “which was too late,” McGrady said. “It seems like every day another camp or two would be announcing that they were suspending or closing when nothing came as promised. The lack of people who really sort of understand the subject was problematical.”
The summer camp McGrady sold years ago, Falling Creek, is among those that decided to pull the plug.
Camp owners Yates and Marissa Pharr announced the decision on the camp website this week, saying they had spent weeks gathering information and studying guidelines.
“It was all in hopes that we would be able to build a plan that would allow us to have camp,” the Pharrs said. “Despite multiple possible program variations, we were unable to find an option that we could confidently stand behind. … The team has been thinking and praying about how to deal with this challenge and the restraints put on the culture and expectations of Falling Creek. This is the most challenging decision we have ever had to make. Despite the sadness and difficulty, we know it is the right one for us.”
Sandi Boyer, executive director of the North Carolina Youth Camp Association, said camp directors are agonizing over the decision. As of Tuesday, 22 camps had canceled the 2020 season, seven had canceled June sessions and the remaining 46 were waiting to make a decision.
“Right now camps are working directly with their local health departments to see how the guidance is going to be implemented,” she said.
With many camps already pulling the plug, the impact will be substantial in camp-heavy areas like Henderson and Transylvania counties.
“As you can imagine it is an economic hardship not just for the camps but for the camping community,” she said.


Camp Pinnacle owner John Dockendorf said he and his team have spent countless hours studying guidelines, talking to peers and getting advice from public health experts on how to safely open camp.
“We are still planning to move forward. "We have digested all the guidelines coming from the CDC and the American Camp Association, revamped our programing, talked with the health department and with numerous camp directors and we are cautiously optimistic we can move forward, with the caveat that camps are reducing the size” of the camp population.
Camp Pinnacle has pushed the season opening back three weeks, to June 28, when North Carolina should be in phase 3 of the reopening schedule Gov. Roy Cooper has laid out. Camp directors in North Carolina are closely monitoring the experience of camps in the Deep South, many of which plan to open in early June.
“They’ll have a month of operations before us and we can study them,” Dockendorf said. “If they’re pulling it off we can continue to move forward with the opening, and if they are not we would not move forward. … In a month, the world may have changed or it may not have changed. We would hate for it to have changed (for the better) and we would hate to have cancelled too early.”
Dockendorf has canceled his company’s Bold Earth travel program for teenagers. He'll run Adventure Treks, usually a national program, at 30 percent of its usual capacity and run trips out of its North Carolina base only. “We lose a ton of money whatever we do,” he said. “It’s just a total non-win situation, is where we find ourselves.”
Camp Pinnacle has reduced enrollment to 60 percent of capacity and put in place numerous other protocols and safeguards.
“We’re following state guidelines and American Camp Association guidelines and feel confident we can do a good job,” he said.
The camps are also factoring in the good they think the camp experience provides, especially when children have been cooped up under lockdown orders since mid-March.
“Frankly, we looked at what kids would be doing if we didn’t run camp and think we can be a safer alternative than most other things they would be doing.”
Counselors will come in two weeks before camp and quarantine. The camp has asked campers to quarantine at home for two weeks before traveling to Flat Rock and they’ll be screened when they arrive. The staff has set up an isolated area to quarantine any camper and staffer who tests positive. Parents have to have the ability to pick up their child within 24 hours.
“We are getting response from parents who are extremely grateful,” Dockendorf. said. “We wish we could serve thousands of kids but being able to serve any kid is good. Our problem is turning people away."

Even the decision at this point to open in June 27 is a tentative. If camps in the Deep South experience problem or if North Carolina seeks a spike in infections, Camp Pinnacle will adjust or call it off, he said.
“We have lost so much sleep over this decision and ultimately we are putting kids first,” he said. “I can say that every camp, whether they’re choosing to open or choosing not to open, is just wrenching their gut over a no-win decision. I’ve been in this industry for over 30 years and nothing compares to this soul searching for what is best for all concerned.”