Every summer, hundreds of thousands of people flood the Catskill Mountains to attend summer camps. The camps differ so much from each other it’s hard to put them in the same category—there are Orthodox Jewish children’s camps, YMCA camps, family-oriented RV parks, glamping sites, municipal day camps, and even a camp for Latvian Evangelicals.
The coming of the campers is innocuous most summers, but the coronavirus pandemic has changed that. Fearing the camps—with their tight quarters and generally downstate clientele—will become petri dishes for COVID-19, local officials have tried to shut them down.
As Memorial Day approaches, a giant question hangs above the region: Will the camps open?
Summer camps are not explicitly mentioned as an essential business under New York State on PAUSE, the series of executive orders signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo shutting down the state. It was unnecessary, since, by definition, summer camps are not open in late March. But the list of essential businesses does include “hotels, and other places of accommodation,” which has been interpreted by camp associations and operators to include camps.
Local officials view it differently. Camps were never listed as an essential business, they argue. Furthermore, camps are not yet listed in any of the phases of the state’s reopening plan, so for the moment, they are closed indefinitely.
In other words, the pro-camp side believes an official order is necessary for them to stop operating, while the anti-camp side believes an official order would have to be given for the camps to start up again.
Asked Sunday about when or if camps might reopen, state health commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said the state isn’t quite ready to make a decision.
Sullivan County has a lot of camps. The county of 75,000 nearly quadruples its population each summer because of them.
Fallsburg, a town of 13,000 abutting Ulster County, hosts a mix of Orthodox Jewish and secular camps. Fallsburg town supervisor Steven Vegliante estimated the number of camps were “in the 60 to 70 range” and include bungalow communities.
In an “Open Letter to Friends and Neighbors” posted to the town’s website on March 19, Vegliante announced that he was suspending the certificates of occupancy for all seasonal camps because they would violate “the Governor’s order.” At the time, Governor Cuomo had signed an executive order banning gatherings of more than 50 people. However, Cuomo had signed a separate executive order the day prior limiting local governments’ power to make these kinds of decisions. Municipal and county emergency orders would now need to be OK’d by the state Department of Health (DOH).
The state DOH denied Vegliante’s emergency order. In a terse statement released March 29, Vegliante wrote that he had requested a review of the denial, as well as guidance from the DOH on drafting an order that could pass muster.
Notwithstanding the denial, the seasonal camps violate the state executive order, Vegliante argued.
“Whether or not our local order gets either reinstated, or reissued in a form that is approved by the NYS DOH, the Town of Fallsburg will continue to prohibit the use and occupancy of [camps] within the Town of Fallsburg during the pendency of this crisis,” the statement reads.
In another statement released later that day, Vegliante seemed to backtrack slightly, writing that he wants “to make it abundantly and publicly clear that I recognize the leadership and authority of our Governor and the State Department of Health…”
Vegliante says he is still opposed to the camps opening, citing concerns about their close quarters and Multi-System Inflammatory Syndrome, the COVID-19-related disorder that has afflicted more than 100 children in the US.
“To me, the risk just isn’t worth the reward,” he says. “All that being said, I am very comfortable with the approaches the governor and the DOH have taken with regard to COVID-19. I think they’ve done a really admirable job, so hopefully they’re taking this seriously as well.”
Fallsburg deputy supervisor Nathan Steingart was more explicit.
“Unless things drastically change, which is certainly possible, I am completely against any kind of camps opening,” he says.
Steingart’s youngest attends a camp in the summers, he says, but he would never send her there under these conditions.
“Just to me, there’s no sensible way to operate any kind of camp and have it done safely,” he says. “The kids are on top of each other—at sleepaway camps, they sleep in bunks and eat every meal together.”
The town decided not to hold its own day camp this summer, Steingart says. The cancelation of the inexpensive program, run by the Boys and Girls Club, is a loss for the community, where the poverty rate is about 25 percent, more than twice the national average.
As Memorial Day approached, some camps began planning on how to open during the pandemic, and a large group revealed the plans to local officials to try to assuage fears.
The Association of Jewish Camp Operators sent a draft plan to Sullivan County legislators May 5 outlining steps they were making to protect the camps.
The plan, first unearthed by the investigative news site The Sullivan Times, dictates that camps would essentially be sealed off from the surrounding community, with no one allowed in or out once campers arrive. All deliveries would be handled by guards wearing masks and gloves. The plan, which was authored by two pediatricians and a third doctor, also states all campers would be monitored for 14 days before their arrival, and anyone developing symptoms at the camp would be immediately isolated.
The draft plan viewed by legislators was addressed to Governor Cuomo. Neither Steingart nor Supervisor Vegliante were swayed.
“It sounds good on paper,” Steingart says. “…I just don’t see that that is realistic, to think that no one will come or go.”
Sullivan County manager Joshua Potosek addressed the opening of the camps at his May 11 virtual town hall. Taking the opposite philosophical position of many camp operators—who say the camps were never closed in the first place, as they were considered accommodations, an essential business—Potosek said it was unclear when the camps could open, since they were not listed in a phase of the state reopening plan.
However, whether the camps opened or not this summer would not be up to him.
Potosek referenced Columbia County’s own struggle with the state to close camps. The county penned an emergency order under its local state of emergency closing camps, but, like in Fallsburg, the state DOH rejected the stricture.
“It’s been made crystal clear at this point that the state is going to be making that determination,” Potosek said.
Whatever that decision was, the county had to prepare, Potosek noted, and he was meeting with camp leaders weekly. Some had decided not to open, but some were eager to.
The denizens of Sullivan County were eager for more information: Three of the four questions asked of Potosek during the town hall were about the camps opening.
If the camps don’t open this year, Sullivan County would take a major economic hit at a time when New York counties are already suffering. The county is predicting a $5 million loss of sales tax revenue. County treasurer Nancy Buck said Monday that Sullivan would most likely have its state aid reduced by $4.7 million. According to the Sullivan County Democrat, $23 million in property taxes have not been paid in the last three months because of the financial havoc wrought by COVID-19.
“We’re kind of torn,” says Alyssa Lapolt, who is working the register at the Fallsburg Stewart’s Shop. Local businesses rely on the annual visitors for income, but Sullivan has so far been less impacted by the coronavirus than nearby counties like Ulster and Orange.
Camp operators were already preparing for the season, Lapolt says, who adds that recent downstate visitors could be frustrating. “People come up and come into the store and ask if it’s safe up here.”
Now that attempts to shut the camps have failed, local officials can only hope the state addresses the issue, though they continue to let their views be known to state officials and the public.
Town of Thompson supervisor William J. Rieber Jr. released a statement May 7 stating that since summer camps were not listed as an essential under New York State on PAUSE, “they cannot operate under Gov. Cuomo’s State of Emergency.
“Should the NYS DOH ultimately decide to allow summer camps to operate,” the statement continues, “they should do so only with a clear and enforceable plan to protect the campers and staff, our year round [sic] and seasonal residents, and protect our limited resources at Catskill Regional Medical Center.”
When contacted about the camps, county manager Potosek released a statement saying the county continues to “prudently plan for the potential reopening of camps and other summer businesses in Sullivan County, while we await clear direction from the State on whether or not those businesses will actually be allowed to reopen.”
Supervisors from 14 of Sullivan County’s 15 towns sent a letter May 11 to state DOH commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker saying they were “under tremendous pressure to close all summer camps for the season, or, at the very least, to implement health and safety standards and policies to protect the public, particularly the elderly and our children.”
The supervisors had not heard back by Friday, according to Bethel Town supervisor Daniel Strum.
Elsewhere, some campgrounds are already open.
Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park in Gardiner, a family-oriented RV park with campsites and cabins, opened its doors to visitors the last week of March.
The Gardiner Town Board held an emergency meeting May 1 to go over its options, and eventually chose a similar move as Fallsburg, requesting the camp be shuttered by the state DOH. The DOH rejected the request, after which the town had no further recourse, according to a statement on the town website, which has since been removed on the advice of the town’s attorney, according to Town councilman Franco Carlucci.
The Town Board refused further comment.
James Kulisek, a distiller at Tuthilltown Spirits, a stone’s throw up the Shawangunk Kill from Yogi Bear’s, says the distillery monitored the campground’s social media before the campsite opened and saw campers excited about being able to visit the campsite once again.
“Here, we’re not too excited having a tourist attraction open,” he says.
There had been an uptick in people along the river, Kulisek says, and the distillery posted signs to deter campers from wandering onto its grounds.
Kulisek questions why anyone would bring people from other areas to the town during the pandemic.
“We’re trying to keep our staff safe,” he adds.
On an unseasonably cold May 8, a few campers ambled around just past the entrance to Yogi Bear’s. Most were wearing masks, some were not. Employees, all masked, checked in campers at the front desk, taking their temperatures with a contact-less thermometer. One week later, the day was sunnier, and the campground more populated.
All questions about the Yogi Bear’s opening were referred by the campsite’s general manager to Tessa Wiles, a spokeswoman for Northgate Holdings, which owns the Gardiner campsite. Wiles did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Campground Owners of New York (CONY) chairman Scott Sherwood says there was “no set guidance from the state during the pandemic concerning camps specifically.”
Sherwood considers the members of his organization—which are almost all RV Parks—essential under the accommodations provision.
“However, it was never specifically stated anywhere that a campground is an accommodation and therefore essential, so that’s kind of open to interpretation,” he says.
In the absence of state guidance, “counties are making their own decisions, and some of them are much more strict than they needed to be, or, certainly more strict than other counties have been,” Sherwood says, mentioning camps in Ulster County that had trouble getting permits, but the permits had eventually come through.
Lobbyists employed by CONY were trying to figure out more specific guidance from the governor’s office, he adds.
State senator Jen Metzger, who represents Sullivan County, says any decision on the camps must be based on medical facts and reality, though decisions were hard to make since uncertainty has been a hallmark of the pandemic.
When asked if she would be comfortable sending her children—one who goes to a local camp, the other who is a camp counselor—to camp this year, she says at the moment, she would worry.
The delineation between localities and the state in the decision-making process was not so clear, she says, mentioning the regional control rooms, which are composed of local stakeholders selected by the state to be part of the reopening process.
The area would have to see how things play out, Metzger says, adding she would not be surprised if an executive order involving camps was issued. Any decision would probably affect various camps differently, she adds, “but I do know they would probably want to know sooner rather than later.”
Roger Hannigan Gilson is a Hudson Valley journalist and humorist. A former crime reporter for the Register Star, he now runs the news site The Other Hudson Valley.