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US health agency loosens mask guidance just in time for summer camps’ return

After most camps were closed last year entirely, CDC says vaccinated kids can skip wearing masks outdoors and indoors

This June 4, 2020 file photo shows a row of cabins at a summer camp in Fayette, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)
This June 4, 2020 file photo shows a row of cabins at a summer camp in Fayette, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

Kids at American summer camps can skip wearing masks outdoors, with some exceptions, federal health officials said Friday.

Children who aren’t fully vaccinated should still wear masks outside when they’re in crowds or in sustained close contact with others – and when they are inside, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. Fully vaccinated kids need not wear masks indoors or outside, the agency said.

Overnight camp is a centerpiece of the American Jewish community, with children often attending and sometimes then working at the same camps that their parents attended. Lasting anywhere from a few days to eight weeks, camps generally include Jewish education, prayer, Israeli cultural activities and Hebrew — along with sports, arts and crafts and other activities.

In April 2020, the Union for Reform Judaism announced that COVID would force a closure of its camps for the summer, affecting some 10,000 kids. In May, the Conservative movement’s Ramah camps across the country followed suit.

Now the guidelines open the door to a more conventional camp experience and came out in the nick of time, just before camps start opening in some parts of the country, said Tom Rosenberg, president of the American Camp Association.

Previously, the CDC advised that just about all people at camps should wear masks with only a few exceptions, like while they are eating, drinking, or swimming.

Illustrative: Jewish summer camp at Surprise Lake Camp. (Surprise Lake Camp)

But that was before adults began getting shots in December, and before the US government authorized the Pfizer vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds earlier this month.

About 2.5 million of the roughly 17 million US kids in that age group have gotten at least one shot. A second dose is also required, three weeks after the first, and then it takes two more weeks before the vaccine fully takes effect.

That means that it will be mid-summer before kids in that age bracket are fully vaccinated. When that happens, “it’s going to be a camp experience that is much more like [before the pandemic],” said Erin Sauber-Schatz, who leads the CDC task force that prepares recommendations designed to keep Americans safe from COVID-19.

The new guidance also says social distancing — staying 3 to 6 feet from others — is recommended for the unvaccinated, but not for the vaccinated.

Camps likely will have mixed groups of vaccinated and unvaccinated kids and should be prepared to have mask and distancing guidelines in place, CDC officials said.

At most Jewish Ramah camps, campers will be kept in pods of one or two cabins for most of their activities. Spaces like the dining hall, where hundreds of campers and staff would come together for meal times, will be subdivided with temporary walls or plastic sheeting to separate pods. Where birkat hamazon, the blessing after meals, was once a rollicking campwide songfest, some campers will have to step outside the dining hall to a tent to say the blessings this year to allow another shift of campers to eat in the hall at a reduced capacity.

Illustrative: Campers at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires in Wingdale, New York, circa 2016. (Uriel Heilman/via JTA)

The camp guidance was updated in reaction to the CDC’s May 13 decision.

The US vaccination campaign has been an apparent success, with COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths declining. But some public health experts saw the rollback as prematurely removing a measure that had helped drive that success. Some also faulted the agency for poorly communicating the decision.

A major concern has been that it can be hard to know who’s vaccinated, so unvaccinated people could quietly go maskless, causing cases to rise.

Rosenberg, whose organization represents thousands of year-round and summer camps in the United States, noted medical forms are a common requirement and said many camps likely will ask for some kind of vaccination verification.

More thant 80% of overnight camps did not open last year, some because states didn’t allow them to, Rosenberg said. This year, all states are permitting day and overnight camps, though many expect to operate at lower capacity, he added.

“Demand is soaring” for camp this summer, as families seek to give kids a chance at normalcy, Rosenberg said.

“This is going to be a summer of joy,” Rosenberg said. “This is going to be a summer where kids are going to be able to reconnect, emotionally and socially, with each other.”

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