PORTLAND, Maine - There are going to be more happy campers this summer as more camps choose to reopen despite the pandemic, providing millions more kids an opportunity to gather around a campfire.
Most camp directors sat out last summer as the virus raged across the country, either because of state restrictions that barred them from opening or because of concerns about keeping kids healthy. But with cases declining and more people vaccinated each day, many are feeling more confident about reopening this season.
Parents are currently scrambling to get their kids signed up before slots are filled in many states like Maine, where at least 100 overnight camps will be open. But some states have yet to release their operating guidelines.
In New York, Andrew and Alyssa Klein held their son and daughter out of camp last year. But this summer they're letting them go to a camp in Maine.
"We have to figure out a way to live our lives safely," said Andrew Klein. "We can't live in a cocoon. We did that for a year. I'm ready to emerge, and I'm ready for my family to emerge, as safely as we can."
Several states like New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey that banned overnight camps last summer have changed their tune. Across the country, at least 45 states are allowing overnight camps to open, compared to 39 states last summer, according to the American Camp Association.
"Camps are really gearing up to operate as fully as possible. They know that campers and staff need this experience," said Tom Rosenberg, from the ACA.
Most of the overnight camps that did remain open last summer mostly operated successfully, creating their own "bubbles" and emphasizing safety by grouping kids in cohorts, mandating masks and social distancing indoors and imposing lots of hand washing. Many required kids to quarantine or to be tested before arrival.
But there were a few notable outbreaks. More than 250 people were infected at a camp in Georgia, and more than 80 people were infected at a camp in Missouri, for example.
Parents who have seen their kids isolated from friends and spending too much time indoors are eager to give their kids some sense of normalcy.
"Given all that kids have gone through, it's an amazing opportunity for them that gives them a glimpse of normal life in a world that's far from normal," said Elisabeth Mischel, of Short Hills, New Jersey, who's sending her two boys, 11 and 13, to camp in Maine.
The situation is much improved from last summer, which was a devastating financial loss for the camping industry with more than 80% of overnight camps closed for the season. Overnight camps were estimated to lose $16 billion in revenue with more than $4.4 billion in lost wages and more than 900,000 lost jobs, Rosenberg said.
Most of the roughly 9,000 overnight camps weathered the storm thanks to federal aid including Paycheck Protection Program loans. But there are about 60 fewer camps than before the pandemic, the ACA said.
Despite all the worries last year, many parents served as pioneers in electing to continue the camp tradition.
In Texas, Megan Considine and her husband loaded up their son and daughter in an RV for the long trip to Maine. Her kids were out of shape after spending too much time indoors, and in front of screens.
"We thought that having our kids at summer camp in Maine was far safer than being at home. It was safer physically and mentally. They needed to get outside and to get exercise," she said.
Jen Block, from Weston, Massachusetts, said it was a no-brainer in hindsight but that there was a great deal of trepidation last summer.
"I can't begin to tell you how good it was for my son's mental and physical health, and his childhood," she said. This summer, she'll be sending two of her three sons to camp.
This summer, COVID-19 tests are more readily available, a bonus for camp directors, even as concerns grow about emerging strains of the virus. Vaccinations, for now, are limited to adults.
At Camp Winnebago in Maine, owner Andy Lilienthal said camp directors know how to keep kids safe - there were no infections at his camp last summer - and they'll make adjustments needed to carry on.
His biggest concern at this point is that there's so much demand amid worries about the emotional toll the pandemic is taking on kids. "It makes me sad to turn people away," he said.