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Connecticut campgrounds open for long-term campers, essential workers amid COVID-19

Laurel Lock Campground in Oakdale won’t be hosting Friday night horseshoes, Saturday night cornhole, hayrides or potlucks, though manager Katie Hornat is hopeful she could still teach yoga classes and perhaps get in some bands for campers to enjoy while social distancing.

Hidden Acres Campground in Preston is closing the playground and canceling activities such as dances and kickball, while Acorn Acres Campground in Bozrah won’t be able to have its Cinco de Mayo event or spa weekends.

As long as social distancing guidelines resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic are in place, this will be a unique season for people staying at Connecticut campgrounds.

Several weeks ago, campground owners weren't sure if they'd be able to open at all. Bill Malitsky, a lobbyist who started working for the Connecticut Campground Owners Association a few weeks ago, noted that campgrounds weren’t included in the initial state list of essential businesses. The Department of Economic and Community Development then specifically said family campgrounds were nonessential.

But earlier this month, the state said it will allow certain people to live at family campgrounds during the COVID-19 emergency, and the Department of Public Health detailed those restrictions in a letter Monday.

People allowed include health care workers, first responders and others who work for an essential business; those who own a permanent structure in the campground for which they pay property taxes; and long-term lease holders. That last one refers to people who entered into a six-month lease before March 10. It’s the exemption that’s particularly important for business, as some campgrounds get the majority of their revenue from these seasonal renters.

They are in contrast to the prohibited transients, or those who stay for just one weekend.

Malitsky called the ruling a lifeline to keep the $240 million industry operating, noting that the cancellation of seasonal rentals would’ve meant the return of all deposits.

In an email to members on Monday, CCOA President Jim Whitney thanked the governor’s office, DPH and DECD “for all the hard work and effort that went into reviewing our appeal and developing a policy that is a responsible and thoughtful response to a very difficult and challenging situation.”

Another person who helped was Rep. John Piscopo, R-Thomaston, who said he wrote to the General Assembly's rural caucus when he heard campgrounds had been deemed nonessential. Piscopo called that "totally illogical," noting that campgrounds are great for housing nurses and utility workers, and that "they're telling you to get outside, get away from people, and there's no better way to do that than at a campground."

Guidance from the state requires that common restrooms/showers and all public areas be closed and, if possible, any contact with the family campground’s office be remote.

'It’s going to be different'

For “snowbirds” who spend winters in warmer climates, a camper might be their primary residence in the spring and summer.

Beth Grady has been going to Laurel Lock since 2010, when she was living in Glastonbury, but she moved to New Mexico in January and the Oakdale campground will be her home this summer. She plans to fly to Connecticut on May 19.

“One of the things that is really nice about Laurel Lock is that each of the sites has plenty of space, so the campers aren’t right on top of each other,” Grady said, so there won’t “be any difficulty keeping 6 feet away.”

With a lot of friends still in Connecticut, Grady usually has guests come down, which she won’t be able to do for the foreseeable future. But she said there’s a friendly atmosphere at Laurel Lock, and people still will be able to drive around on their golf carts and say hi to one another.

Laurel Lock opens May 1. Staff members typically start preparing for the season in March, though they began at the end of January this year because of the mild weather.

Hornat said they’re cleaning bathrooms in the hopes they’ll be open later in the season, but with the latest regulations, they’re not “under the gun to have every building ready, every bathroom ready.”

She said Laurel Lock is “very fortunate that the majority of our business is seasonal camping,” estimating that about 90% of its business is seasonal. She said many people put down their deposits last July and others trickled in through the rest of 2019, and that Laurel Lock has 100-125 campers this year.

She said Thursday only one person had pulled out so far for coronavirus-related financial reasons, and he was going to be a new camper.

Similar to Hornat, Acorn Acres Campground owner Scott Gladstone said he has about 100 seasonal campers, while roughly 15% of the campground’s income is derived from transient campers. He doesn’t have a prediction as to when or if the state will allow transients this year.

As for essential workers, Gladstone said his campground gets traveling nurses, construction workers and people in trades, such as plumbing and electrical work. Acorn Acres opened on Friday.

Returning to his camper for the fourth year at Acorn Acres will be Bob Aldi, but unlike Grady, he will be there only on weekends. He lives with his wife and kids, ages 3-13, in Norwich.

“There’s plenty of room for them to ride their bikes, to run around and play,” Aldi, said, “but it’s going to be different, and I think it’s going to be different for quite a long time, until some of the unknown questions are answered, and I don’t know if they’re going to be answered.”

Like Laurel Lock, Hidden Acres Campground in Preston is opening May 1, same as usual, but owner Bill Migliaccio estimates he gets only half his business from seasonal campers.

“The weekenders spend money when they’re here,” he said. “The seasonals are a good part of the base, but when they’re here, they don’t spend money on things like the weekenders would. They’re not on vacation.”

Migliaccio said some snowbirds are opting to stay in Florida but still are paying for their sites.

As for the transients, he said Hidden Acres already has refunded everybody who made reservations through May 20, the date through which Gov. Ned Lamont has extended closures and social distancing guidelines.

“I know some other campgrounds were doing credit, but we figured the customers could use the money,” Migliaccio said.

What about camping at state parks?

An update from mid-March on the camping page of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection website states that all new camping and cabin reservations at state parks are suspended until further notice.

The post continues, “We are assessing campground status on a daily basis. If you’ve made a reservation for the season on or after 5/22/2020, and we determine your campground is safe to open, your reservation will be honored. If it is determined that additional closures to the camping season are warranted, you will receive a full refund.”

May 22 is the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, and Tom Tyler, director of state parks, said in an email Friday a decision was made in mid-March to suspend all “early season” spring camping. He plans to announce a decision in the next week or so as to whether the beginning of the camping season will be delayed further.

Tyler said that decision depends first and foremost on guidance from public health officials around social distancing. Other factors include the time needed to bring on seasonal staff, open bathrooms and otherwise prepare for the season.

e.moser@theday.com

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