Freedom—April 19, 2020—Ossipee Lake’s campgrounds and RV parks are scheduled to open in a matter of weeks, potentially bringing hundreds of campers to the lake and surrounding communities from Massachusetts and other states hard hit by the COVID-19 virus.
Freedom State Representative Jerry Knirk is trying to prevent that from happening. Knirk is one of a growing number of area officials who have petitioned the governor to keep campgrounds closed until medical officials say it’s safe to open them.
Early this month, the governor gave campgrounds a lifeline by allowing them to remain open during the pandemic “for the purposes of providing parcels of land rented for the placement of a tent or recreational vehicle.”
In a post on Freedom’s Community Message Board last week, Knirk said the campground exemption fails to take into account that many such businesses are marketed as resorts and operate like hotels. Most hotels, motels, inns and related lodgings are closed, having been designated as non-essential businesses. Knirk thinks campgrounds should also be on that list.
“The governor does not understand that we are not talking about rustic camping,” Knirk wrote. “This poses a real problem for health care resources in the Lakes Region and Mount Washington Valley.”
Knirk is not alone in his position. An online petition asking the governor to keep campgrounds closed was posted last week by Bartlett’s State Representative Anita Burroughs. As of Sunday evening, close to 2,200 people had signed it.
In Tamworth, the Select Board voted unanimously to send a letter to the governor saying the arrival of thousands of out of state visitors in May could spread the virus and overwhelm local hospitals.
Conway has the same worries. The town’s Fire Chief, Steve Solomon, told the N.H. Union Leader that the town has already seen an influx of weekenders from coronavirus hot spots like Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut despite orders in those states discouraging interstate travel. Thousands of additional vacationers escaping to Mount Washington Valley and becoming sick here could quickly overwhelm Conway’s small community hospital, Solomon told the paper.
To illustrate the point about strained public health facilities, Knirk cited Freedom’s Danforth Bay Camping and RV Resort in a letter he sent to Jonathan Ballard, the chief medical officer of the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services.
Knirk said town officials estimated there were 3,500 people at the campground on July 4th last year. He asked Ballard to consider the impact of the return of those campers on top of the return of families with seasonal homes and Freedom’s 1,600 permanent residents.
“An explosion of COVID 19 cases in our area will quickly overwhelm Memorial [Hospital], leaving no care for those of us who live here,” he said, noting that the hospital has 25 critical care beds and just a few ventilators.
Danforth Bay Camping and RV Resort is closed at the moment and is not accepting reservations for the spring season. But its website says it is “accepting and encouraging” reservations for summer vacations even as it waits for state guidance regarding activities and pool use.
Another of Ossipee Lake’s major campgrounds, Westward Shores Cottage and RV Resort, plans to open on May 15. Its website says the business has “elevated our sanitation measures” by increasing the cleaning and disinfecting of door handles, sports equipment and baby changing stations, among other things.
The website also contains a list of precautionary measures that visitors should take while on-site, including frequently washing hands, avoiding contact with people who are sick, and staying home if flu-like symptoms appear.
State Representative Bill Marsh, who represents Ossipee, said in a phone interview with the Alliance that “the details are important” in any decision that’s made about opening campgrounds in the near-term.
He thinks it’s possible to operate a campground if campers coming from out of state self-quarantine for two-weeks, maintain adequate social distancing and only use the bathroom in their RV. But he was firm in his opinion that communal bathrooms, pools, water slides and bathhouses need to be closed, as things stand.
“This is a fast-moving virus and the situation changes daily, so we’re going to have to react continuously to the facts as we have them,” he said.
Children’s Camps Also a Concern
Marsh is also concerned about the operation of children’s summer camps, which have been left out of the current discussion, perhaps because the main camping season doesn’t begin until mid-June or later. Ossipee Lake has five such camps, some of which offer pre-season adult and family programs.
He said limits that might be feasible to put in place at RV-oriented campgrounds are impossible at children’s camps, with their communal bunkhouses, dining halls, bathrooms and showers, not to mention group sports.
Marsh likened the challenges at summer camps to the situation with schools, most of which were closed early in the pandemic because of the threat of asymptomatic children contracting the virus in the classroom and carrying it home to their parents and grandparents.
He said many children planning to attend the area’s camps come from COVID-19 hot spots like New York and Massachusetts, where parents have seen the illness up close and may have had friends or relatives sickened or killed by it.
“It’s possible that the summer camp issue will resolve itself in the coming weeks if parents decide not to put their child into a communal living environment this summer and camps are forced to cancel the season,” he said.
“But a lot could change in the next two months. We’ll have to wait and see.”