For some essential workers in N.H., campgrounds are short-term housing

  • Sonny Sell, owner of Circle 9 Ranch in Epsom, walks around the campground on his birthday, Wedensday, April 23, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Sonny Sell, owner of Circle 9 Ranch in Epsom, walks around the campground on his birthday, Wedensday, April 23, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Sonny Sell, owner of Circle 9 Ranch in Epsom, walks around the campground on his birthday, Wedensday, April 23, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Sonny Sell, owner of Circle 9 Ranch in Epsom, walks around the campground on his birthday, Wedensday, April 23, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Sonny Sell, owner of Circle 9 Ranch in Epsom, walks around the campground on his birthday on Wednesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/23/2020 2:37:13 PM

There’s a small but important group of people who are very interested in the debate over whether the state should close down campgrounds until COVID-19 is under control: The short-term essential workers who are already there.

“Then I have a big problem: I won’t have a place to go stay,” said Vander Baker, a lineman living in his RV at Circle 9 Ranch campground in Epsom, when asked about the possibility of campgrounds closing. Like many of the wintering residents at Circle 9, he’s a contractor who works on power lines for utilities.

“I talk among all the other contractors as well. They’re relying on the campground so they can still work. Think about it: it’s like renting a room from someone, an apartment. … But the campground is a better way to go if you have your own little trailer. Your bed, your kitchen, all that stuff that’s in there,” he said.

Most campgrounds in New Hampshire are closed over the winter and are scheduled to open next month for seasonal use, usually recreational. Some communities have asked Gov. Chris Sununu to prevent them from opening out of fear that tourists will bring the virus when they arrive. On Tuesday, Sununu said the state will allow campgrounds to open but said it could change direction should the virus worsen.

Circle 9 is one of a handful of campgrounds in the state that is open year-round. Most have a subset of their sites available in the winter, usually with full power, water and electricity hookups. They’re rented to people in recreational vehicles or trailers with bathrooms.

Sonny Sell, who has owned Circle 9 for 5 years – it dates back to 1954 – said most of its business involves months-long stays except for small bursts of recreational campers during Motorcycle Week or when NASCAR comes to the Motor Speedway. Power line workers and nurses are his most frequent tenants.

“A lot of traveling nurses stay here. They get jobs and are transferred here for 6-7-8 months, then they get transferred someplace else,” said Sell.

In Henniker, the Mile Away Campground has “10 to 12” power line workers staying in their own RVs, said Bob French, who has owned Mile Away for 20 years.

“They’re subbing for Eversource. They go job to job, or area to area – next week they could go out to Oregon,” he said.

French said he didn’t know what the contractors would do if campgrounds were closed by Sununu, but he noted a bit of irony in that Sununu has also certified them as essential.

“If they get stopped on the road, they have papers that show they’re essential workers – it’s signed by the company and Gov. Sununu,” he said, adding that he thinks Sununu is doing a good job during difficult and confusing times.

“This is all new to all of us. I’ve been doing this a lot of years but never in this kind of situation,” French said. “If I’m going to make an error, I’m going to do it in the way that’s the safety of people.”

Both French and Sell said they have limited interaction in various ways since the stay-at-home order came.

The 23-acre Circle 9 is fenced and Sell said only residents can come in. “We don’t even allow family members since the virus showed up,” he said.

Circle 9 has a pool, which Sell doesn’t plan to open at all this year, and communal bathrooms are closed. It also has a recreation center where dances and Bingo are held.

“We won’t open those up until God only knows when,” he said.

At Mile Away, French is expanding his office so that when seasonal camping begins, people can pay with less interaction.

“I’m building a little entry house so that people don’t have to come in the office to check in. It’s 10 by 10 so they have room to stay six feet apart,” he said.

At Circle 9, Sell said his tenants have been understanding of the restrictions.

“They’d like to all see it open up, but they know it’s not going to be,” he said. And if he has to shut down entirely?

“That’s a question we’ve been asking ourselves, I don’t know what happens to all these essential workers, these essential nurses” Sell said. “I don’t know where they go, I don’t know what they do with their trailers.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog granitegeek.org, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.



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