When do overnight sleepaway summer camps become day camps? When the coronavirus interferes with everyday life.
That’s what is happening in the Sullivan County communities in the heart of the Catskill Mountains this summer. This turn of events is making camp owners stressed out and worrisome for the children they take care of for the eight weeks of July and August.
“It’s a serious problem because there are a lot of Jewish kids without a lot to do and it’s not good for anybody,” Rabbi Benzion Chanowitz, the spiritual leader of the Landfield Avenue synagogue in Monticello told The Jewish Press. “The children stay with a family overnight and during the daytime they go to camp. Camp is not a babysitting service. It’s a time for growth.”
Chanowitz is not worried about the coronavirus. He says his 17-year-old son left New York for virus-plagued environs of Florida to be a camp counselor at an overnight camp located about an hour north of Boca Raton.
“Children get it (the coronavirus) like they get the flu and they get over it,” Chanowitz said. “My son was in New York City when the outbreak started and he had the virus already. My main concern is, is he doing a good job as a camp counselor?”
But the matter of fact attitude Chanowitz has is not shared by everyone in the Catskills Jewish community, especially when New York government officials change the rules in midstream.
“The situation is stressful because we were required by law that our own camp could only be at 50% capacity and we hired staff based on the rules on the books at the time,” said Meir Frischman, the director of Camp Agudah and Camp B’nos based in Liberty, N.Y. “On Friday, July 10, we got letters in the mail stating that capacity at the camp should only be at 20%. Now they are requiring us to throw out the staff. That, of course, we’re not going to do so that puts us in a stressful position.”
The staff made up of counselors, maintenance workers and kitchen help, who are 18 years of age and older, sleep over at the camp while the children leave the campground at around 7:30 p.m. each day, according to Frischman.
Many Jewish camp owners set up their overnight camps in places in the Poconos in Pennsylvania, areas near Bethlehem, New Hampshire and other states allowing for the immersive Jewish experience where secular camps once occupied territory.
“Tremendous amounts of learning and self-esteem is lost by going home every night,” Frishman complained. “There’s just no self-esteem. They don’t pick that up because they don’t have to. They’re not on their own. All the life experiences they get by being on their own, learning how to fend for themselves is a loss by going home every night.
“We know what camps do for the kids. We know how to change most of their lives. They (the camp directors) are all disappointed that the kids are losing out and it’s sort of a mission for them. Most of the camps are not for profits and they do it for the sake of the kids.”
There are more than 100 Jewish camps in Sullivan County during a summer not disrupted by a contagion such as the coronavirus.
While Chanowitz says, “The Catskill Mountains are packed because there are no camps but the parents have summer homes and the kids are here with their parents,” Frischman says the “Sullivan County tax base will probably suffer tremendously because of the lack of overnight camp activities.” The two camps Frischman runs have 400 campers, half of the normal capacity of previous years.
Frischman’s assessment may be closer to the truth. During a virtual town hall meeting, Sullivan County Legislature Vice Chairman Mike Brooks (R – Grahamsville) told county residents “our county finances are bleak. All options are on the table right now trying to get past this period. We know to one degree or another it is not going to be good. The whole goal, if at all possible, is to stay underneath the (2%) tax cap. That’s the goal that we’ve embarked on. Our goal is to come out of this with a county that is not taxing our county residents to something that is just unsustainable. Our fiscal situation is definitely not in a good spot.”
With a year-round population of 76,000, the coronavirus has killed 48 residents of Sullivan County. There are currently five active cases, 154 residents are in quarantine, 15,346 residents (20%) have been tested with 1,430 (9%) confirmed to have the virus. There are currently no hospitalizations for coronavirus in Sullivan County at this time.
County Health Director Nancy McGraw warns residents to remain vigilant but that is all she can do since state health department officials in the Monticello district office have usurped her authority regarding the oversight of camps.
“The enforcement of all of the regulations for health and safety for the camps and summer visitors at the camps and temporary residences is the responsibility of the state health department,” McGraw said. “Local enforcement involves education, following up on complaints (we get a lot of complaints through our office) that come to us through the NY Pause helpline and we do follow up on those. We’re here as a resource.”