Do Summer Camps Warrant Bail-out Funds?

Camp Mount Shenandoah: less screen time, more time outdoors

by James A. Bacon

A philosophical question to ponder: If the Commonwealth of Virginia shuts down an entire industry by executive order to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, what moral obligation does it have to help the businesses survive the epidemic?

Literally no industry in Virginia has been more impacted by the emergency shutdown than overnight summer camps. Summer camps do not comprise a particularly big industry — one guesstimate is that 75 establishments generate in the realm of $100 million a year — so they cannot be said be be economically “essential.” But they are essential, camp advocates say, for the mental health of thousands of Virginia kids, who need physical activity and social interaction.

Many industries have been slammed by the emergency shutdown. However, none but the summer camps have been entirely shuttered for all three phases. Camps generate 90% or more of total revenue from seven to 12 weeks during the summer, and if they are forced to close during that period, there is no way to make up for lost revenue.

Now a coalition of 15 overnight summer camps is asking Governor Ralph Northam and the General Assembly for a small piece of the hundreds of millions of dollars in federal CARES Act relief aid heading to Virginia. Specifically, the coalition would like grants equivalent to 75% of each camp’s average gross revenue from the past three years.

There is growing concern about the impact of social isolation on the cognitive development and emotional health of school-age children. Most discussion has been focused on the need to send children back to school where, in addition to the academic benefits, they can interact with peers and develop socially. The level of anxiety and depression of school-age children is on the rise under enforced isolation.

The summer camps advance a similar argument. Summer camps, said Allison Ryals with Caroline Furnace Lutheran Camp in an online press conference this morning, “help children grow, learn, bond and find their passion.” Children need to cut their “screen time” and spent more time engaged in physical activity in the great outdoors. “This pandemic has forced us to live in forced isolation,” she said. Camps create communities that promote children’s physical and mental health.

In theory, camps had access to federal PPP loans designed to help small businesses through the crunch. However, a glitch in the legislative language unintentionally kept most camps from getting any relief. Ninety percent of the camps that tried to amend their loans were blocked, said Henry DeHart with the American Camp Association.

No one knows what to expect next summer, although the operating assumption is that the COVID-19 epidemic will be around. If Virginia camps are allowed to re-open, they most likely will incur additional expenses for virus prevention and reduced attendance, DeHart said. Without relief, many could perish, he predicted.

Ann Warner, owner of Camp Mont Shenandoah, said members of the coalition have been in contact with Brian Ball, Virginia’s secretary of commerce and trade, and with several legislators. No one has yet filed a bill on the coalition’s behalf, however.

The camp coalition’s best bet likely is lining up support from rural legislators in whose districts camps are located. A national study of camps’ economic impact suggests that there is a 2.5 multiplier effect as camps purchase equipment and supplies, and as campers, staffs, and parents spend money locally on food and lodging. That would translate into an impact in rural Virginia of more than $250 million.

Bacon’s bottom line: Tough choice here. I normally oppose government subsidies for business. Everybody has a sob story, and everybody has their hand out. The nation can go broke bailing everyone out. But if the nation is spending hundreds of billions of dollars bailing out businesses and pumping liquidity into the economy, some consideration should be given to an industry that may be more adversely affected by emergency shutdown orders than any other.

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20 responses to “Do Summer Camps Warrant Bail-out Funds?

  1. 75% of gross revenue sounds like a windfall to me. Did these camps incur any variable costs this summer? I assume they didn’t buy food for the kiddies. Did they pay the councilors not to work? Shouldn’t any payment be a percentage of gross margin or net income rather than gross revenue?

    • One of the big costs in camps is insurance. I know of a mom/pop canoe livery (most are) – and it costs 20K in insurance just to open up and thats prior to COVID19.

      I suspect most summer camps considered “exposure” and decided it was not worth it especially if they could be personally sued.

      • Fair point but I assume they canceled their insurance this summer. What is there to insure? So, back to my question – 75% of gross revenues? Really?

        • “I assume they canceled their insurance ”

          You must be of the “I want to fire my healthcare insurance company” Romney persuasion.

          No, you never cancel. You inform them of reduced exposure or need, and pay the adjusted premium. Canceling costs you. Big.

          • in this case – the insurance is bought when needed … I think a lot of recreational summer businesses work that way.

            They always risk the premiums going up.. but that can happen even if you keep it because it actually is renewed annually.

          • Nancy Naive: often wrong but never in doubt. See Larry’s comment. Why anybody would assume that summer camp insurance works the same way as personal health insurance is a mystery to me.

          • I didn’t assume that. I was making reference to a Dilbert who would cancel a policy rather than adjust the risk. I ran the neighborhood pool and rec club. On the off-season, the cost of the insurance dropped to damn near nothing because all we needed to carry was comprehensive.

            If you cancel a policy, the underwriting for a new one could cause you to lose grandfathered conditions… oooh preexisting…

            Don’t be dense.

        • They decided not to open. They felt like the 20K would be gone and no way to recoup the cost.

          yep – no fan of 75% or even 10%. summer camp is totally not necessary. It’s for folks who want to do nice things for their kids and have the money to do so. Nothing more.

  2. Right now, the government is LITERALLY picking winners and losers..

    And the thing that really impresses is just how much of the economy involves things that are not really essential – it’s for enjoyment- like summer camps but also collegiate and professional sports, cruise ships, casinos, amusement parks, tourism, sit-down restaurants, and more.

    I don’t put that much stock in the “mental well being” and “socialization” thing. These are things that can easily be met in other ways – perhaps in ways different than previously but also existing right now.

    For instance, outdoor activities can be done with others – including many done in summer camps. But some aspects where we congregate have to change. I walk and I meet folks all the time. And we stop and talk and we have visited others in their backyards – socially distant – eating food we brought… we catch up with each other, etc.

    So it’s not like we’re actually devoid of opportunities and are forced into mental distress.. That’s up to us… there are many opportunities… if we open our minds up…..

  3. Agreed, LG, the government is picking winners and losers. Why is this aid coming from Congress in the first place? It’s to keep the businesses alive (the fixed costs including land and building maintenance to run a summer camp are substantial), to keep employees on the camp payroll if not furloughed (when unemployment would kick in, another government program), but most of all to put that money into the economy through the spending of those who remain employees, landlords, etc. We can allow the government to decide which businesses to keep alive in this manner but that’s a slippery slope; and the other two goals need the dollars in any event.

    So, Jim, I agree with you, “if the nation is spending hundreds of billions of dollars bailing out businesses and pumping liquidity into the economy, some consideration should be given to an industry that may be more adversely affected by emergency shutdown orders than any other.” Only I’d give it more than “some consideration.” I really don’t think the government should be deciding winners and losers in that manner.

  4. Why does everybody freak out over the government “picking winners and losers”? First, how long have they been doing that? (Hint: 1776). Are you dissatisfied with how they’ve done so far? (remember, you’re also the ones who constantly say, “America is the greatest”… as opposed to just “the best money can buy”)

    • 1776? It didn’t hurt to be pals with Moses or Pharaoh.

      This industry wouldn’t be high on my list of concerns. Small, largely unskilled workforce with only a few weeks on the job each year? Not where I’d put my rescue dollars. They are probably doing what I see the tour companies doing — trying like crazy to get people to pre-book for 2021 or 2022 and provide some cash now. If you ever wanted to try Viking, boy can you get a deal now.

      • “1776? It didn’t hurt to be pals with Moses or Pharaoh.”

        Seriously Steve? With as many wisecracks as I have made about your age, you pitch this?

        I just cannot do it. Too easy.

        OTOH, speaking of Viking tours, when you and Lief first set foot on Newfoundland….

  5. Oh, maybe because now… it’s so obvious?

    It’s one thing to be a conservative boogeyman, quite another to be in your face!

  6. Why would a Virginian living in Manassas shoot at a US military asset?

    https://amp.cnn.com/cnn/2020/08/12/politics/fbi-investigating-air-force-helicopter-shooting/index.html

    I dunno, nostalgia?

  7. The overnight summer camp industry is the one industry in Virginia that was specifically prohibited from operating at all in both Phase 2 and Phase 3 of Virginia’s reopening plan. The short seasonal window of time that camps have to earn an income in 2020 has closed, which means that if camps are able to operate in 2021, it will have been almost two full years since they had taken in any revenue. Running a summer camp, however, is a year-round operation involving facilities and grounds maintenance, marketing, program development, professional development, payroll for year-round staff, and more. Most camps do not shut the gates and walk away in the off-season. Office staff, maintenance staff, and administrative staff continue to work year-round in preparation for the next camp season.

    Camp counselors who are seasonal employees are, in fact, highly skilled. They are leaders in their schools, churches, and communities who are hired by camps because of the unique skills they possess to work with children. During their weeks of summer employment their job description includes serving as caregivers, teachers, mentors, mental health counselors, entertainers, coaches, and so much more. They are on-call 24 hours a day and they go above and beyond to create enriching, meaningful, safe experiences for campers whose parents trust them to care for their children in their stead. Experience as a summer camp counselor provides real-world job training, and young adults who work as summer camp counselors are highly successful in their future careers.

    Summer camps are vital to the social, emotional, physical, and spiritual development of children from all backgrounds. At camp, children develop independence, resilience, and grit, learn to be tolerant and inclusive as they live in community with others, hone leadership skills, and build self-confidence. They are able to unplug and escape the far-reaching tentacles of technology and the often toxic culture of social media that overwhelms them at home. They spend their summer learning to appreciate and protect nature as they play, swim, and explore outside with their peers. These are not experiences that can be replicated in any other setting. For many children who struggle in school—academically and socially—camp provides a respite in the summer. Children thrive in an environment outside of the traditional classroom each summer, and they return to school with greater confidence as a result of new friendships and accomplishments at camp, which in turn, leads to greater success in school. If summer camps are not preserved and supported, it will be devastating to thousands of Virginians whose lives have been and would be forever changed by summer camp experiences.

  8. The overnight summer camp industry is the one industry in Virginia that was specifically prohibited from operating at all in both Phase 2 and Phase 3 of Virginia’s reopening plan. The short seasonal window of time that camps have to earn an income in 2020 has closed, which means that if camps are able to operate in 2021, it will have been almost two full years since they had taken in any revenue. Running a summer camp, however, is a year-round operation involving facilities and grounds maintenance, marketing, program development, professional development, payroll for year-round staff, and more. Most camps do not shut the gates and walk away in the off-season. Office staff, maintenance staff, and administrative staff continue to work year-round in preparation for the next camp season.

    Camp counselors who are seasonal employees are, in fact, highly skilled. They are leaders in their schools, churches, and communities who are hired by camps because of the unique skills they possess to work with children. During their weeks of summer employment their job description includes serving as caregivers, teachers, mentors, mental health counselors, entertainers, coaches, and so much more. They are on-call 24 hours a day and they go above and beyond to create enriching, meaningful, safe experiences for campers whose parents trust them to care for their children in their stead. Experience as a summer camp counselor provides real-world job training, and young adults who work as summer camp counselors are highly successful in their future careers.

    Summer camps are vital to the social, emotional, physical, and spiritual development of children from all backgrounds. At camp, children develop independence, resilience, and grit, learn to be tolerant and inclusive as they live in community with others, hone leadership skills, and build self-confidence. They are able to unplug and escape the far-reaching tentacles of technology and the often toxic culture of social media that overwhelms them at home. They spend their summer learning to appreciate and protect nature as they play, swim, and explore outside with their peers. These are not experiences that can be replicated in any other setting. For many children who struggle in school—academically and socially—camp provides a respite in the summer. Children thrive in an environment outside of the traditional classroom each summer, and they return to school with greater confidence as a result of new friendships and accomplishments at camp, which in turn, leads to greater success in school. If summer camps are not preserved and supported, it will be devastating to thousands of Virginians whose lives have been and would be forever changed by summer their summer camp experiences.

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