Orillia’s Youth Leadership Camps Canada (YLCC) on Moon Point Drive is preparing to open for the summer camp season. However, it is still unclear if the provincial government will allow them to operate.
YLCC and all other overnight youth camps across the province were ordered to remain closed last May, and they haven’t been told they can open back up since.
YLCC officials say they are having a difficult time planning for the upcoming summer with the lack of clarity coming from the provincial government.
“We have to hire staff but then not give them a secure contract because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” said YLCC owner Stu Saunders.
The YLCC hires 100 employees each year; many of them are local youth who have participated in YLCC camps in previous summers.
“Some of these kids have waited their whole lives to be on camp staff, but they lost last year and need to make money for school, so they go pick up another job which makes things hard for us,” Saunders said.
YLCC is beginning to prepare the property as if summer camps will be allowed to happen this year. Preparations take six to eight weeks, and camp usually starts about ten weeks from today.
“We are building new outdoor stages, decks, and hand washing stations all over the camp. It’s costing $120,000 in renovations just to get ready for a COVID- safe camp, and the government could say next week 'Sorry camps can’t open,'” Saunders lamented.
“We’ve invested all this time and all this money so that camps could open safely, but the unknown is hard to plan for.”
YLCC is planning on running both their overnight camp and a small day camp this summer, but only if the government deems it safe to do so. Saunders says the likelihood of camps taking place this summer is starting to wane.
“A month ago I would have said there is a 70/30 chance it would be a go, and now it feels more like 50/50,” he said.
“But we will open if the province lets us and if we will feel comfortable opening camps with all the protocols.”
Protocols that will need to be followed by campers this summer include wearing masks, no or limited cheering and singing, and no big group camp games.
“Those are the things that camp is all about, so do we open our camp with this kind of experience? We could make it fun, and our staff is wonderful, but it wouldn’t be the traditional camp experience that kids have gotten to know over the 30 years that we’ve been running our camp,” Saunders said.
Saunders believes that camps being closed last year and potentially again this year would be unfair.
“Summer camps were the only industry in the province of Ontario that was shut down and never allowed to re-open, and they’ve done nothing to support us,” he said.
YLCC received a $10,000 grant from the government last year which Saunders says is appreciated but doesn’t help much.
“Camps are in a place now where if they can’t re-open this summer, there is a good chance that many camps in Ontario will never open ever again,” he said.
In a normal year, roughly 1,500 youth attend camp at the YLCC, and Saunders says the experience can be life-changing.
“These kids haven’t had a chance to be together or be outdoors for a year and a half, they are screen-time exhausted, and they need to be here,” he said.
“SickKids Hospital has done research that says the mental health benefits of summer camp are immeasurable. We disconnect kids, there is no Wi-Fi here, there are no computer screens, there is no Netflix. This is the one time of year that kids detox technology.”
Saunders says if camps don’t open this summer, it could take the industry five to eight years to recover.
“That’s how long it will take to get parents back to sending their kids to camp, getting kids to want to go to camp, and then getting kids old enough to go through the program to become camp staff,” he said.
“If camps can’t open there is a whole lot of beautiful places on lakes like ours that won’t be OK, and historical camps will turn into subdivisions and cottages, and these big, beautiful places won’t be here, and kids need places like this," he stressed.
The City of Orillia has not yet made a decision on if their popular summer day camps will proceed this summer.
"We will be able to provide more information regarding the outlook of Orillia summer camps when the current stay-at-home order has ended," said Marcia Russell, the city's manager of recreation services.