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'Kids Need Camp Now More Than Ever:' WNC Camp Directors Struggle With COVID-19 Decisions

Camp Watia is the youngest YMCA camp in the country. The team decided to close for the summer on May 15.

Summer camps are a big part of the culture of Western North Carolina. There are over 70 camps of all types for kids of all ages at the western end of the state. Many are still deciding if they will close due to COVID-19. 

Singing songs around a campfire, canoeing, team building: These are all activities that are associated with summer camp. They are also activities that require close contact — something that isn’t possible in a social distancing world of COVID-19.

“Capture the flag is a big activity for us that we do every Sunday,” said Ryan Hove, executive director of YMCA Camp Watia near Bryson City. 

“That's the first big all-camp activity and it seemed really unlikely that we were going to be able to facilitate things like that,” says Hove. 

Despite other YMCA camps across the country remaining open, Hove and his team made the choice to close for the summer on May 15. 

Camp Watia is the youngest YMCA camp in the country, opening in 2016. Many other camps in the region have been family-run for generations. Their experience extends to viruses, said Sandra Garcia Boyer, executive director of the North Carolina Youth Camp Association. 

“Camps have a long, long history of planning and managing against communicable diseases. Certainly Polio, H1N1 and most recently SARS,” said Garcia Boyer. “Camps are uniquely ready for this type of situation.” 

Garcia Boyer said about 20 camps in the association have already been canceled while others haven’t made a decision. Camp Pinnacle in Henderson County and others have announced that they will open at reduced capacity later in the summer.

She stressed that camps are a major industry in Western North Carolina — over $360 million is associated with just the camps in her organization, as well as 10,000 full-time jobs according to a 2010 NC State study. 

Garcia Boyer also worries about individual camps. If they can’t open this summer, that means about 22 months without revenue. 

Girls-only Camp Merri-Mac opened in 1945 near Black Mountain and then expanded with a boy’s camp, Camp Timberlake, in 2018. So far both camps have canceled June sessions, but camp director Adam Boyd hopes they will be able to open later in the summer. He’s waiting to hear when North Carolina will move into Phase 3 to make a decision. 

“If we don’t hear something by June 1 then the camps that are still hoping to operate in July will find it very difficult to do that,” said Boyd. 

North Carolina moved to Phase 2 on May 22, and that is expected to last at least five weeks.

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