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Free masks are displayed at a kiosk on Park Avenue in Keene on Friday. The woman who makes them with her twin daughters asked to remain anonymous. She said since May 21 more than 1,000 masks have been taken from the kiosk. There is also a flower stand on Ashuelot Street where masks are given away.

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Local summer overnight camps playing it safe, at a cost

Like so many other facets of 2020, summer camp this year will look a little different.

For one thing, there will be no Camp Takodah, for the first time in more than a century.

"Yesterday was a pretty rough day for all of us," Artie Lang, executive director of Takodah YMCA, said Monday. Sunday would have marked the start of the season.

Until this year, Camp Takodah had opened every summer since 1916. The camp facility has been in Richmond since 1919. 

Amid the continued uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, Camp Takodah is one of at least three overnight camps in Cheshire County that will miss the summer 2020 season entirely.

Some other area camps have chosen to move their programming online. And even those that have opted to open in person will do so under a modified format. 

Monday was the first day the state allowed day camps to welcome children for the season, under health and safety guidelines to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. Overnight camps are allowed to reopen June 28.

The guidelines call for dividing kids into small groups and other social-distancing measures, frequent hand-washing, and screening campers for symptoms of the virus each day upon their arrival.

Both the Keene Family YMCA and Stonewall Farm have gone ahead with their day camps camps, but with significantly fewer spots available than last year.

Daniel Smith, chief executive officer of the Keene Y, said Monday that in accordance with the state's guidelines, the Y's camps are able to host only about half the number of kids as last year. 

"It’s going to be a challenge. We’re going to break even or operate at a loss, but that is OK because from a Y standpoint, our community built us," he said. "When our community is in a place of need, we want to be able to respond." 

The Y's weekly camps began Monday and run for eight weeks. While there are still some spots open throughout the summer, the sessions are pretty full, he said. 

Groups consist of no more than eight campers to two staff members, and there are five groups each week, according to Smith. While two groups can be in the gym space at one time, the other three are outside, he said.

C&S Wholesale Grocers loaned some of its field space, which is next to the Y's facility, to the YMCA to use, and two families have donated events tents to use for the summer program, Smith said. 

However, because only four groups will be able to fit inside the YMCA building if necessary, the threat of a severe thunderstorm one day will mean one of the five groups will not be able to participate, he explained. 

"One group will get dismissed, and we'll rotate which group that is," he said.

Regardless of the changes, he said the kids who started camp on Monday were happy to be there.

"From a kid perspective, it's camp as usual," he said.

Like the YMCA, Stonewall Farm on Chesterfield Road in Keene started its daytime summer programming Monday. But it had to cancel its traditional Thursday night camping and family nights, Executive Director Julie Davenson said in an email Monday.

Camp capacity has been reduced by 40 percent because of the pandemic, resulting in smaller groups of up to nine children, she wrote. There are also staggered and distanced pick-up and drop-off times.

"Reducing our enrollment will result in a reduction in revenue but not necessarily expenses, as we have to run a very low staff to child ratio and hire extra staff in case counselors become ill," Davenson wrote.

But the decision to hold summer camp this year had a lot of do with families asking for the programs, she said. 

"We also felt we had the opportunity to provide a safe environment with most of camp taking place outdoors and plenty of room to social distance on the 120-acre property," she wrote. 

Throughout the region

The financial loss Takodah YMCA is facing due to the decision to cancel camp this year is just over $1 million, according to Lang, the executive director. 

The organization's board of directors and staff made the call to cancel about a month ago, as it became clearer and clearer that they wouldn't be able to operate the camp and keep everyone safe, he said. 

"It was a risk we were not willing to take." 

Full refunds have been offered to campers, but already, about 85 percent have instead rolled over their tuition to register for the 2021 camp season, he said. Some have also donated their registration fee to the organization, he noted.

Takodah YMCA is pursuing state and federal government relief funding, but will also need donations to make it through, he said.

"We're certainly going to be asking all the members of the Takodah community — our alumni, amazing parents and staff to help us fundraise to make sure we're ready to rock and roll and make up for it in 2021."

Camp Wa-Klo, a girls overnight camp in Dublin, is also canceled for the season.

Only a handful of overnight camps around the state have chosen to open this year, and that has left parents scrambling, Camp Director Tammy Fortune said Monday. But with so much about the novel coronavirus still unknown, Camp Wa-Klo officials weren't comfortable opening the facility.

"We closed for the summer out of concern for the safety of our community and surrounding communities," she said.

Likewise, Dan Syvertsen, executive director of Camp Spofford, announced on the organization's page last month that the overnight youth camp part of its offerings would be canceled for summer 2020. As camp personnel worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidelines for limiting the spread of COVID-19, they realized that the guidance would be too restrictive for the program, he said.

"I know this will be sad and difficult news for your kids, and we had hoped for a very different outcome when we began planning for the summer," he said in the post. "I have seen many camps make the same decision, and kids all around the Northeast are going to lose the opportunity to attend a camp this year."

In the absence of the overnight camp, staff will be turning their attention to the local community and expanding the day camp programs, he said. In addition, Camp Spofford family camp will be open for the summer, albeit with some changes, according to the organization's website.

A local exception to this season's shuttering of sleepaway camps is Kroka Expeditions in Marlow, where officials are moving forward with the year-round adventure school's summer 2020 season. 

Kroka runs overnight programs that range from one to four weeks and cater to children as young as age 9 right up through high school age, according to Program Director Ezra Fradkin.

Families have been inquiring about Kroka's COVID-19 protocols, he said, explaining that the organization is confident in procedures staff developed early on had have been consistently revising as new information becomes available.

Parents have been both enthusiastic and nervous and enrolling their children in the programs, according to Fradkin. 

"It's been really interesting, we've seen a mix of both," he said Monday. "Early on in the COVID-19 crisis, we had a number of withdrawals from families who had registered previously. But in the last month, we've seen a surge in enrollment. All of our programs are full with waiting lists, and we've been getting five to 10 inquires a day."

Meanwhile, both the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts have canceled their traditional in-person day and residential camp programs statewide for the summer because of the pandemic. The organizations are setting up virtual summer camps instead.

"Virtual day campers are provided with activity kit backpacks they use throughout their week, where they spend one hour a day online getting to know their counselors and sister campers, then spend time outdoors doing activities like making an edible 'campfire,' trying out an orienteering challenge, or observing wild birds," a news release on the Girl Scouts of the Green and White Mountains' website states.

Tom Charlton, district executive for the Mount Monadnock District of the Daniel Webster Council for the Boy Scouts of America, said scouts usually work on merit badges while at camp, and they will still be able to do so this summer from home with instructors online. 

Families with scouts will also have the opportunity to rent campsites at the summer camps like they would rent a campsite at a state park, he said, while following pandemic-related guidelines.

“Everyone wants to be camping, but right now is just not the moment.”

Sentinel staff writers Mia Summerson and Jack Rooney contributed to this report

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Report: Rural NH, Vermont handled virus well

HANOVER — Given the challenges rural communities and health care systems in the Twin States faced even before COVID-19, Dartmouth College researchers said they were surprised to find that they have so far adapted well to the additional challenges of the pandemic.

“Poor outcomes are not inevitable,” said Anne Sosin, who directs the Center for Global Health Equity program at Dartmouth and co-authored a recent report on COVID-19 and rural health equity in northern New England.

As COVID-19 hit the region in March, Sosin and co-author Elizabeth Carpenter-Song, an assistant professor of anthropology at Dartmouth, began interviews with 50 people representing health systems, social service organizations, public health groups, mutual aid agencies and municipal governments across Vermont and New Hampshire. The research focused on four geographic areas, including the Upper Valley, the Greater Sullivan/Windsor County area, the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and the North Country of New Hampshire.

“We went in thinking that we would be revealing gaps,” Sosin said in a Zoom interview earlier this month. “Our research really showed that was not the case at all.”

Through these interviews, the researchers learned that health care organizations partnered in new ways to prepare rural hospitals to care for the critically ill. Social service organizations also stepped up to identify groups who were especially at risk of contracting the virus or of side effects related to mitigation efforts.

For example, groups focused on the problem of homelessness worked to identify those in need of housing and find space for them in motels. And schools have used their bus routes to get food to families.

Carpenter-Song credited the region’s culture for protecting its most vulnerable so far during the pandemic. For example, she pointed to neighbors taking the time to check in on each other, especially older residents or others with underlying medical conditions who are at a greater risk of developing serious symptoms should they contract COVID-19.

“The frontline is really the communities,” Sosin said. “It’s not the health systems. Health systems in many ways are the last line of defense.”

But it also is important that the hospitals have worked with community groups in their response, which helped people understand the importance of and how to comply with stay-at-home orders and other social distancing measures, she said.

Despite the collaborative response, the researchers noted that the region is still facing substantial challenges, including health care providers’ ongoing difficulties obtaining personal protective equipment and issues ramping up testing and contact tracing, especially in New Hampshire where the state health department does not have regional offices as Vermont’s health department does. Without local offices during the pandemic, Sosin said “the capacity of the state is strained” in New Hampshire.

The pandemic also has highlighted the region’s shortage of primary care providers, she said. Especially early on when testing supplies were limited, primary care providers who are in short supply in the Twin States were tasked with determining who should and shouldn’t be tested.

But Carpenter-Song noted that medical practices of all kinds have largely moved to telehealth during the pandemic, which has effectively removed the previous barrier of transportation to medical appointments that is often a challenge in rural areas. She said they were especially excited to hear that mental health providers saw a huge drop in no-shows.

This helped to answer one of their driving questions: “What are the lessons we could learn from this and carry it forward?” she said.

In the case of telehealth, she said the “genie is out of the bottle.”

The report does note, however, there are limitations to telehealth, including caring for people early in their recovery from an addiction, people struggling with severe mental illness and helping people cope with isolation. It also is limited by people’s access to broadband Internet connections.

The researchers also pointed to resiliency shown by the local business community in setting up curbside shopping options and customers opting to shop closer to home, including at nearby farm stands.

The pandemic and the increasing reliance on telework has underscored an opportunity to grow rural communities, but that will be dependent on broadband access, Sosin said.

This is the first of a series of reports the researchers plan to issue on the response to the pandemic. Moving forward, they will look at secondary effects such as rates of domestic violence and child abuse.

The researchers also plan to continue to examine the resiliency and sustainability of rural health systems in the face of COVID-19. The hospitals will need to remain prepared to treat people with COVID-19, while at the same time working to reopen their other services and make up for the losses of as much as 50 percent of their service volumes during the first few months of the pandemic.

The Dartmouth-Hitchcock health system, for example, received nearly $89 million in CARES Act funding from Washington and tapped tens of millions of dollars in other federal supports to help it weather a loss of patient revenue from the pandemic.

Sosin said she’ll also be closely watching the numbers of cases in the region as time goes on.

“We need to be worried if numbers start to rise again,” she said.