Coronavirus means camping's out in much of Michigan

Ariana Taylor
The Detroit News

On a typical camping trip, Kelli Duranczyk cleans out the family camper and packs clothes and food. Duranczyk's husband, Rob, 46, parks the camper at the campsite, makes sure it's leveled, and hooks up the water pump and turns on the propane. 

Their 9-year-old son, James, cranks the jack stands under the camper, hangs the hammocks, and sets up the chairs and picnic table. Everyone has their set duties to complete for the Traverse City family's summer tradition, which began before James was born. 

Closed Bishop Lake Campground at Brighton Recreation Area in Brighton, Michigan on May 14, 2020.

However, the first two camping trips the family planned for this summer, at Whitewater Township Park near Traverse City, and Ludington State Park in Mason County, were canceled. Duranczyk, 46, didn't get to pack her family's favorite snacks.

Rob didn't get to tow their camper down the highway and James didn't get to help with the firewood. Since Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's extension of her stay-home order, all state park camp grounds have been closed and won't reopen until late June at the earliest. 

"It's sad when you can't go out to camp; that's like the best place to be," Duranczyk said. "But it's not going to help anybody to not follow the rules. If the campground isn't safe for us to go, then I don't feel safe."

Michigan's Department of Natural Resources announced extended closures for campgrounds within state parks until June 21. Campgrounds in state forests are closed until June 9 and dispersed camping, or camping without park services, isn't allowed until at least May 28. 

According to the DNR, more than 3 million people visited Michigan campsites in 2019, with about 1.2 million overnight stays booked at campgrounds. 

Even if Whitmer's stay-home order is lifted after May 28, campsites will be closed for awhile afterward because park staff members have to prepare for campers, and such work was put on hold due to COVID-19. According to the chief of Michigan's parks and recreation division, Ron Olson, staff is up to eight weeks behind on preparing campsites.

"A lot hinges on what's going to happen with the executive orders ... we're just taking it day by day, week by week as these orders evolve," said Olson. "We're just advising and keep repeating to people to use their best judgment and err on the side of caution."

Clear sheetings is installed at the desk of the registration building at closed Bishop Lake Campground at Brighton Recreation Area in Brighton, Michigan on May 14, 2020.

Most state campgrounds have to hire and train new staff and de-winterize, or perform spring preparations on the grounds. Other sites need construction on restroom buildings and other repairs that would have otherwise already been completed. 

Once campgrounds are finally open, avid campers are in for a few adjustments that will help limit the spread of COVID-19, state officials say. 

Social distancing will still be encouraged once campsites reopen. Campers will be asked not to travel long distances to sites and to wear mask and bring their own sanitizers and cleaning materials. 

Other components of camping could be different as well. Common areas such as restrooms and shower buildings could be closed or have limited access, meaning those without bathrooms in their campers may have a hard time finding a usable campsite. Playgrounds and swimming areas may also be restricted. 

A Sand Hill crane in the rain at the closed Bishop Lake Campground at Brighton Recreation Area in Brighton, Michigan on May 14, 2020.

"It could be things like that don't open for a while, simply because of the congregation of people," Olson said. 

Elizabeth Barber doesn't remember a time when she didn't love to camp. She'd been camping since she was 8 years old, and before she was 20, she knew she would buy an RV. 

Barber, 60, of Saline, has a goal of camping 30 nights a year and she's lost count of how many reservations she scheduled for this year. But because of the pandemic, she's had four trips canceled in April, May and June. 

"I really respect the stay-at-home orders and I know we will get back to camping again. This is not going to go on forever," she said. "But it will look different."

On May 15, the Department of Natural Resources canceled camping reservations scheduled for before June 21. Full refunds will be given to the reservation holders, the department website stated. 

The option to change reservations to later dates and earn a free night is also available, though many campsites see reservations scheduled up to six months in advance. 

Campers and people who depend on their business to make a living are frustrated by the restrictions.

"The confusion of everything is what's really getting to people," said Todd Tipett, 78, who owns an RV and camper company in Three Rivers. "If it's an health issue, then that's priority number one, but there's so many things that you can do that are higher risk than going camping right now."

Closed Bishop Lake Campground at Brighton Recreation Area in Brighton, Michigan on May 14, 2020.

Though the stay-home order limits certain outside activities, Olson said people who are looking to scratch their nature itches can still go hiking, biking and sightseeing as long as they practice social distancing and don't travel far distances to go to parks. 

To make up for their lost reservations, the Duranczyk family set up tents at their home and went camping in their backyard. 

"Just make the best of it, that's our thing," Kelli Duranczyk said. "With everything going on in the world ... camping is positive, we come together as a family camping."