Conway—April 18, 2020—Although Gov. Chris Sununu has said campgrounds can open amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Mount Washington Valley officials and many residents fear he’s creating an unnecessary risk in these uncertain times. One official, State Rep. Anita Burroughs (D-Bartlett), is circulating on online petition that had gathered more than 777 signatures by 3 p.m. Friday.
During a press conference Thursday, Gov. Sununu said he has been “listening to a lot of constituents” and admits “there has been a lot of concern” about the campgrounds opening. But he and other state leaders are continuing to craft a “guidance directive that would allow them to stay open” that could be unveiled as early as next week.
According to the New Hampshire Campground Owners Association’s website, there are 150 campgrounds that are members of the association. Conway Fire Chief Steve Solomon, who opposes the governor’s stance on campgrounds, said there are 11 campgrounds in the Mount Washington Valley.
During his press call, Sununu said, “We’d probably limit the number of tent sites, along with how far apart they must be.” Sununu said campgrounds would have to use a reservation system with their guests. He also said that if it’s not working or public health is impacted, he “may have to pull the plug” on camping for the foreseeable future.
Later, in the hourlong news conference, Sununu was asked about people coming to the Granite State to recreate. “The New England and the Northeast all have stay-at-home orders,” he said. “You’re healthier at home in Massachusetts and in New York. At this time, it’s really about staying at home.”
He added: “This is no time to be vacationing in the White Mountains as beautiful as they are. This is the time to be in your home state and staying healthy.”
Glen Ellis Campground in Bartlett has been following the governor’s guidelines and is planning to open on May 14.
“I believe we can do this responsibly,” Michelle Rober of Glen Ellis told the Sun on Friday. “We’re taking a lot of precautions and are only going to open if we can do it in a way that is safe for our guests and staff.”
The campground, which is owned by Northgate Resorts of Grand Rapids, Mich., sits on 70 acres and has 243 campsites.
“As a local business, we want to open,” Rober said, “and we’re committed to doing it the right way. I know there is animosity about (the governor’s decision), but we really have an eye focused toward the future. We want to show that we can coexist and show ways that the local economy can start to get back to normal.”
Rober said Glen Ellis is geared toward families, with “99 percent” of its guests coming via reservations. The campground has installed a remote check-in with a smartphone app.
Sununu has asked that out-of-state visitors self-quarantine for 14 days when they come to New Hampshire. Rober said that is not something Glen Ellis can require guests to do as many are not making reservations for that long a stay.
She said the campground has recently purchased a high-powered pressure washer, which will be used to sanitize “everything we have every day.”
“We’re trying to be super-cautious and maybe take things further than needed,” she said. “Our goal is for this to work for everyone.”
Of Rober, Burroughs said: “Michelle is a dear friend of mine, but we respectfully disagree on this. It’s not about just the campsites, it’s about the (campers) going to recreation areas and going into the grocery stores. It just makes no sense for this to be happening now. I’ve heard from a lot of my constituents who urged me to do something.”
She added: “I talked with Michelle and told her one of my concerns is that people are going to see out-of-state (license) plates, and they are going to get harassed and may have their tires slashed.”
Burroughs started the online petition Thursday at 6 p.m. and was “surprised but not shocked” by the big response. “I’m hoping to get several thousand signatures,” she said.
Burroughs’ petition reads: “We, the citizens of New Hampshire are concerned about the potential for a large influx of visitors to our state during the COVID-19 pandemic. Opening Granite State campgrounds will bring an influx of thousands of people to our communities, significantly increasing the risk that our citizens will contract this virus.
“Many of our rural communities have small community hospitals, which could quickly become overwhelmed in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak. Some of these hospitals have a very limited number of beds and few ventilators designed to care for a small population. An explosion of the virus in these towns could quickly become an untenable situation.
“We understand the importance of opening our economy and getting people back to work. But this is not the time to invite thousands of visitors to recreate in our state. We ask that you continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation and open our campgrounds only at such time as medical experts in the field deem it safe to do so.
“Governor Sununu, we urge you to protect the health of our seniors, our children, and other vulnerable individuals by keeping our campgrounds closed. Our lives depend on it.”
To see or sign the petition and read people’s comments, go to tinyurl.com/ybzdg7k8.
Laurie Bonica of the Tamworth Camping Area said they have adjusted their early-season plans. A scheduled work weekend on the 33-acre, 100-site campground planned for May 8 has been canceled.
The “traditional family campground,” as Bonica calls it, plans to open May 15 for the season, but in a limited capacity.
“We’ll probably only do seasonals for the first couple of weeks,” she said, referring to RVs, motor homes and campers, which need to be situated next to electrical hookups. “There will be no common areas open for at least the first two weeks. That will be tough for children who will want to use the playground.”
Bonica is anticipating approximately 30 seasonal campers coming on May 15.
The traditional powwow that was scheduled for May 15-17 has been rescheduled to Aug. 29-30.
“Hopefully by next weekend, we’ll see what the various government agencies allow us to do,” Bonica said. “We’re taking baby steps and will do what the powers that be tell us.”
Selectmen in Tamworth voted 5-0 on Thursday to send a letter to Gov. Sununu voicing concerns about opening campgrounds.
Selectman Rebecca Mason said medical facilities in the area don’t have the capacity to handle extra people from away if the pandemic gets worse.
“We are canceling rec programs, we are canceling Fourth of July, we are really trying to be very cautious here,” said Selectmen’s chairman Willie Farnum, who agreed with Mason.
Tamworth Police Chief Dana Littlefield said even if the campgrounds took the “proper provisions,” the campers would still be “out and about in the community.” He said the campgrounds inundate Dunkin Donuts and the Dollar General on Route 16 with customers.
Although the town of Jackson does not have any campgrounds, its police chief Chris Perley admits he’s concerned about the governor’s stance.
“As a community, we enacted an ordinance prohibiting boondocking (camping on town property without permission), the regulation does cause some concern,” he said Thursday.
“As a law enforcement agency, we are regularly asking residents to avoid any unnecessary travel along with other social restrictions. It seems contradictory to then also say, as a matter of policy, that people near and far can travel here to stay and recreate. This makes obtaining voluntary compliance from the citizenry more difficult. It also increases traffic and activity that stresses emergency services at all levels.”