Campground owners feel 'lost in the shuffle'

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DUMMERSTON — Local campground owners are wondering how to keep their businesses alive given the restrictions put in place by the state for the coronavirus pandemic.

"It feels like campgrounds got lost in the shuffle," said David Hiler, co-owner of Kampfires Campground in Dummerston.

Out-of-state guests who plan to stay in lodging establishments like campgrounds must complete a 14-day quarantine in Vermont beforehand. Hiler said the requirement was not designed for southern Vermont communities that so closely border other states.

Amy Brady, co-owner of Kampfires, believes recreational vehicles provide the safest way to travel. She said many RV owners bring all of their food and items, and have bathroom facilities inside.

Kampfires reserves 10 sites for tents but is not currently accepting any campers for this format because that would require opening its bathhouse. Brady said her group does not feel comfortable opening the facility because of the coronavirus.

"It's too uncontrolled," Hiler said.

Normally, the facility is cleaned twice a day. With concerns about the virus, the owners would want a more frequent schedule. But with no revenue to cover additional cleaning, the option is off the table.

Most of the guests come from out of state, the owners said. They estimate most travel from within a 50-mile radius.

With gatherings of more than 10 people banned in Vermont, Kampfires is not running any events or allowing mini golf games and swimming.

"I can't run my business," Brady said.

Regular changes to restrictions make it difficult to convey to customers what to expect. Refunds have been made to those whose reservations were cancelled when the campground was shut down with other non-essential businesses earlier in the pandemic.

Hiler said the campground has protocols to ask if a quarantine was completed in order to keep the community safe. But he called the 14-day requirement "a death sentence for us."

"People will find somewhere else to go," he said.

Brady hopes to see allowable gathering sizes to increase so activities can be offered. She said golf clubs can be sanitized and holes are 6 feet apart but more than 10 people would need to be allowed on the course at once.

Campgrounds already have physical distancing between sites and picnic tables, Hiler said, adding that campers are "self contained, staying together" and trying to engage in outdoor activities.

His hope is to tap into new economic recovery funds being proposed by the governor. Kampfires was not eligible for the federal Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loan program.

Hiler said his group understands the need for quarantining but feels it could be done in the state of origin. He called tourism Vermont's "main import/export."

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"Not having tourists come in hurts everyone," he said. "It hurts retail. It hurts restaurants. Campgrounds are a great resource for people who want to visit and see our community. It should be supported."

After the interview, Brady was happy to learn she could offer outdoor dining at the food truck and ice cream stand at Kampfires.

"Tables must be 10 feet apart which is no problem for us and limited to 50 people at a time, also no problem for us!" she wrote in an email.

VERMONTERS WELCOME

Kathryn Berta and her husband Alan, owners of the Brattleboro North Kampgrounds of America (KOA) Journey in Dummerston, are marketing to citizens within state borders.

"I do believe Vermonters will come together and help support local businesses like ours and Kampfires down the road," Berta said, describing the quarantine requirement as the most challenging aspect of operating right now given that her campground is near the border of three states. "Most of our business because of that does come from people out of western Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire and upstate western New York."

Berta recalled canceling about 90 percent of reservations for Memorial Day weekend and refunding deposits after being closed for two months due to the state of emergency. Now, lodging establishments are permitted to run at 25 percent of its occupancy capacity.

At the time of the interview, the local KOA was taking reservations for Memorial Day weekend again.

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"But with such short notice from the state — with regards to what the rules are, what we can do, who we can bring into the campground — giving us about a week's notice didn't let us educate Vermonters and get the word out that we were able to fill that small capacity," Berta said. "We're working to get the word out but we're just hoping that Vermonters respond and want to camp. The whole heart of camping is to go explore. We're hoping Vermonters from upstate come down here and see what our campground has to offer as well as our local nature."

Most of the KOA campground is designed for RVs, making it easy to keep physical distance from others, Berta said. Cabins and cottages are available, and a couple of tents are being allowed to be set up each day.

The KOA is following federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on cleaning and disinfecting a bathhouse on the property. Staff members are wearing masks. Hand-sanitizing stations are set up. A dog park can be used by one family at a time.

Berta said when she describes to potential customers what the camping experience will be like, "they're all ready to take on the rules and properly social distance and wear masks if they need to."

"People are excited to have a change of pace," she said. "Camping is inherently social distancing."

Outside of holidays and parties, Berta finds that most campers are not looking to be in large group gatherings. She sees many families wanting to spend time together.

Berta said a significant number of "snowbirds," or those who return here for the summer after being in Florida for the winter, have canceled their reservations.

The KOA brings in a lot of international guests through partnerships with Cruise America.

"Obviously all of that has been canceled through September from what I have experienced," Berta said, noting that any business from Canada has been canceled as well because their residents cannot cross the border for non-essential business.

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Believing the 25 percent occupancy requirement to be appropriate for hotels, Berta wants to see separate rules for campgrounds where she said guests can be more spread out.

'IT'S KILLING US'

Brian Young, co-owner of West River Camperama, said only those in the lodging industry are expected to enforce the quarantine requirement while other businesses can serve out-of-state customers without asking questions.

"People from out of state are pouring into the state," he said. "The only people this is hitting is the lodging industry. We're not allowed to take these customers and it's killing us."

Campgrounds can take customers from other states who had existing seasonal contracts in place as long as they lock themselves in a camper for 14 days, Young said. He called that kind of quarantine impossible and unhealthy.

Young estimates that his business could lose as much as 95 percent of its revenue due to the restrictions. He worries that if other campgrounds do not follow the state's guidance, the entire lodging industry would be shut down.

Customers are asked to sign paperwork to say they already quarantined somewhere else in the state or are essential workers, Young said. He estimates that the state is only reducing out-of-state visits by 5 to 10 percent with the quarantine requirement.

"The quarantine is an unreasonable option," he said. "It's not intended to provide a safe means for out-of-staters to come into the state of Vermont. It's intended to be exceptionally difficult to prevent them from coming into the state. It's a deterrent."

Precautions can be taken if restrictions were eased, Young said. He would feel comfortable asking campers from out of state to stay isolated on their own site and stay within the campground.

Camperama hosts more than 100 out-of-state guests with seasonal contracts, Young said, but none of them are interested in quarantining for 14 days in Vermont prior to staying.

At a press conference Monday, Gov. Phil Scott suggested Vermonters take a "stay-cation," or a vacation close to home. But with campers already sitting on nearly all of the sites on the campground and further restrictions on capacity, Young said he cannot advertise spots. He said customers are already asking for refunds and permission to get their RVs and personal property they left at the campground. He described spending much of his days answering questions from customers or who people who want to come to the campground.

Young is not allowing customers to come get their RVs and property without the 14-day quarantine. He pointed to last week's state guidance saying that "commuter (day trip) traffic to and from Vermont by those who travel daily between Vermont and adjacent states is authorized for essential travel (e.g. essential work, healthcare, groceries) and currently authorized daily work, family visitation, or recreation. Travel to and from Vermont from outside the daily commuting area AND by those who do not travel to and from adjacent states daily is currently restricted and subject to mandatory quarantine upon arrival in Vermont."

"They're literally hanging a stone around the necks of the owners of the lodging industry and throwing them overboard," Young said. "The frustrating thing is I know we are not making a positive impact for this sacrifice."

Vermont Agency of Transportation data as of Monday morning, which is subject to change for improvement controls, showed 40,239 out-of-state vehicles came into Vermont on Friday and only 8,299 left that day. Young said the number most likely reflects second home owners coming for the weekend.

"By my count, an additional 400 out-of-state cars on Fridays would allow all out-of-state seasonal customers to come to campgrounds and keep those family businesses alive," he said in an email. "An increase of 1.3 percent."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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