“There’s no reason we can’t make camp happen with a little planning and ingenuity.” Camp Timberlane director Corey Mandell’s proposal for salvaging the summer

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“There’s no reason we can’t make camp happen with a little planning and ingenuity.” Camp Timberlane director Corey Mandell’s proposal for salvaging the summer

Late last month, after the province put the kibosh on sleep-away summer camps, Corey Mandell put on his Camp Timberlane–branded thinking cap. The owner and director has a plan to make his camp as Covid-proof as possible, and has pitched the province on a pilot project. Here, Mandell explains how it would work and why he says kids need camp now more than ever.

 

The government says overnight camps are simply too risky. You have a different take?
I don’t want to say that I totally disagree, but I do think they made the decision to cancel early and without looking at all the options. I am coming at this from the perspective that kids need camp and that there is no reason that we can’t make that happen with a little planning and ingenuity. It’s something I feel passionately about. Long before I became the owner of Camp Timberline in 2006, I was a camper and then a staffer. I haven’t missed a summer here since I was 10 years old. Camp gave me the opportunity to gain independence, to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be. Camp was the first time I ever had a microphone—I sang “Grizabella” in CATS—and I went on to have a successful career as a DJ and working in entertainment. And then the friendships you form at camp: there is no bond stronger than the ones you make living and breathing with people for eight weeks every summer.

But in the age of Covid, isn’t living and breathing the whole problem?
Not with what I am proposing, which is essentially a giant bubble at summer camps, where we could be almost certain that people coming in did not have the virus. Not a literal bubble, obviously, but a protected zone where we could make sure no one goes in or out. The province is offering widespread testing as of last week, so the first step would be requiring campers to self-quarantine for two weeks before camp, getting a test done within 72 hours before camp and undergoing a second test upon arrival. I’ve been in contact with an Ontario company called Precision Biomonitoring that imports and sells a highly sensitive test from the U.S. that provides accurate onsite Covid-19 results within an hour.

That sounds good, but the test you are talking about is awaiting approval from Health Canada. Isn’t that a pretty significant roadblock?
The test is already FDA-approved and is being used in the United States. Precision Biomonitoring has submitted their application to Health Canada and are awaiting approval. I am in constant communication with the company.

Okay, assuming there is approval, how can you be sure campers will be strict about a two-week quarantine? One camper sneaks out to see her boyfriend, and suddenly you have a camp-wide outbreak.
It’s true that we can’t be 100 per cent sure that people will follow instructions, but I do think that kids are eager to get to camp, which is a pretty good motivation. But I take your point and we have made plans to mitigate that risk. It’s not dissimilar to the way the government is reopening the economy: for the first two weeks we would have campers restricted to their cabin groups only, meals would be staggered so that we can observe social distancing rules, and all activities would be with cabin groups only. Counsellors would take their campers’ temperatures daily and if somebody shows symptoms, that camper would be moved to an isolation cabin to stay until his or her parents arrived. We have also been in contact with a company that is creating a high-speed camera and temperature scan system that we could install at, say, the entrance to the dining hall. It uses facial recognition software and scanning equipment to record your temperature as you enter.

This all sounds safe, but also a bit like a police state. Is there a point when you’re losing the things that make camp camp?
I think if you asked a camper, they’d say they would be happy to just stand in a field with their friend. Kids have been living in lockdown since March. They are hurting. The other night, my daughter came into my room crying because of how disappointed she is about camp, and a lot of kids are feeling the same. Camp was like the light at the end of the tunnel, and now it’s just cancelled? The other thing is that kids are going to socialize wherever they are. I’m hearing stories of play dates, kids playing sports in parks, going to Starbucks. And they’re doing all of that relying on social distancing to keep them safe. The same goes with day camps, which the province is still allowing under certain guidelines. With day camps, you have kids going home every day, so screening isn’t possible. In that sense, what I’m proposing is actually a lot safer.

How much does the testing system you are looking at cost?
The cost per test is less than $100, which includes accessories like vials, sample prep and so on. We would need to get about one thousand, so obviously that’s not cheap. From my perspective, though, the investment makes sense. If camp doesn’t operate this year, I will have zero income. No matter what happens, we have already lost a couple million with the cancellation of May and June, when we often do school groups and corporate retreats. I just paid another two million in refunds. My main concern is bringing camp to kids, but I’m also an entrepreneur. I’m not the only camp director in this situation.

What about the not-for-profit camps that won’t be able to consider the kind of measures you’re talking about? Is it fair that you’d be able to operate and they wouldn’t?
Actually, one of our parents suggested we sponsor a not-for-profit camp for testing. The parents at our camp have said they would be willing to do that and hopefully other for-profit camps would consider adopting the same model. We have had so much support from our parent community, and that has been really encouraging. Do you know that until the government announced the cancellation of overnight camp in late May, we hadn’t had a single cancellation? Not one.

Is it possible parents are just desperate for a little me-time?
Well, obviously concerns around the safety of their kids would come first. I think the support we are getting shows how much parents value camp and see it as something that is beneficial in terms of development and mental health. And yes, we could all use some relief right now. Myself included. Working from home with four kids has been extremely challenging. I have a whole new respect for my wife.

So at this point, your proposal is still just that. Have you heard anything from the government that gives you reason for optimism?
Well, we know that our proposal has been received and is moving up the right ladders towards the Health Minister. We haven’t heard anything back, but I’m hoping we will soon. I really think this idea has potential and that summer 2020 could still happen. Now we wait and see.