Washington’s overnight summer camps are hoping for a slightly altered return to cabins, swimming, campfires and canoeing this summer after the COVID-19 pandemic mostly canceled last year’s season.

Those hopes got a boost last week, when Gov. Jay Inslee announced that Washington was on track to fully reopen by June 30, if not sooner, and moved all counties to Phase 3 of his reopening plan, which would allow camps to move forward.

Inslee’s reopening guidance allows overnight summer camps only if a county is in at least Phase 3 of reopening. Pierce, Cowlitz and Whitman counties had been in Phase 2, but Inslee, on May 13, moved every county in the state to the third phase.

Inslee, earlier this month, paused the phased plan for two weeks, saying we were “at the intersection of progress and failure.” Just a few weeks ago, King County’s numbers, on infections and hospitalizations, threatened a return to Phase 2, according to data from Public Health — Seattle & King County.

“It’s kind of a big question,” said Carrie Lawson, camp director of Camp Sealth, a sleepaway camp on Vashon Island that serves more than 2,000 kids in a typical summer. “Some camps are really uncertain about whether they’ll be able to operate.”

But the increasing levels of vaccination in the state — nearly 60% of Washington residents age 16 and over have at least one shot — will boost the chances of a full camp season.

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Camp Sealth is planning for a camp season, even as COVID-19 numbers fluctuate and little is certain.

Campers will stay with their cabin, and perhaps one other, for all meals and activities at Washington state summer camps this year. (Courtesy of Camp Sealth)
Campers will stay with their cabin, and perhaps one other, for all meals and activities at Washington state summer camps this year. (Courtesy of Camp Sealth)

Registration is open and their sessions are close to full, Lawson said.

But they’re planning to operate at only around 60% capacity to make more room for distancing.

The governor’s guidance for summer camps, released this spring, includes detailed requirements on spacing, capacity and distancing. But that guidance could also become moot once the state fully reopens.

For instance: No more than 400 people are permitted per session of camp, including campers, staff and volunteers. Bunks must be at least 6 feet apart, and should be arranged head to toe to maximize distance. No more than 16 campers per cabin or tent.

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Outside the cabins, the state’s guidance advises that campers be grouped into cohorts of no more than 16. That means no big, campwide activities. Instead, campers will remain with their cabins, or be grouped with one other cabin, to minimize intermixing throughout the day.

At Camp Colman, on the Key Peninsula in the South Sound, and Camp Orkila, on Orcas Island, cabins that would typically have 14 campers will only have seven, said Gwen Ichinose Bagley, the youth development director for YMCA of Greater Seattle, which operates the two overnight camps.

“They will, as a cabin, a group for the week, do their activities and meals together,” Ichinose Bagley said. “We won’t be doing our very large camp activities that we’ve normally done in the past, we’ll be doing some modified versions of those; [we’ll] still have the same camp feel, just in a different way.”

“No large activities that include multiple 16 camper cohorts or entire camps are allowed indoors,” the governor’s guidance says.

The guidance requires all campers and staff to be either fully vaccinated or to receive a negative COVID-19 test less than three days before arriving at camp.

“We are just really encouraging people to get vaccinated,” Lawson said. “More vaccines mean kids can go to camp this summer, so that’s the message we’re pushing all the time.”

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Vaccines, which are free and do not require health insurance, are now available to everyone age 12 and older.

Masks are also required for everyone, except when sleeping and eating and for certain outdoor and water activities.

The guidelines strongly recommend eating outdoors. If indoor eating is necessary, they say, cohorts must be spaced and the dining hall can be at no more than 50% capacity.

Masks will be required at Washington summer camps this year, as they must comply with reopening guidance from Gov. Jay Inslee. (Courtesy of Camp Sealth)
Masks will be required at Washington summer camps this year, as they must comply with reopening guidance from Gov. Jay Inslee. (Courtesy of Camp Sealth)

Day camps were mostly able to operate last year and will do so again this year, again, with some tweaks.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of King County run day camps at 24 sites, serving about 1,100 kids a day, from mid-June through August. Last year, they operated with a few limitations, like no field trips.

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Outdoor field trips, like the beach and the zoo, will be back this year, said Jayme Hommer, chief development officer for the organization.

They’ll be using big buses, rather than vans, to allow for more spacing within, Hommer said.

She said Boys & Girls camps will emphasize “social and emotional health and learning, giving kids the time and space and tools to process everything they’ve been through in the past 14 months.”

Each camp will spend 20 minutes a day working on reading, writing and math, Hommer said, “because we know this has been a really strange last year of school.”