Local camps are waiting for the state to give the final word on summer programs despite recommendations from Columbia County officials to keep them closed.
In late April, Columbia County officials from the Department of Health, the County Attorney’s Office, and Board of Supervisors Chairman Matt Murell issued a strong recommendation that summer camps with children and counselors not operate during the COVID-19 crisis.
In Greene County, Council for Resources to Enrich the Arts, Technology & Education’s annual Sprouts program, scheduled to run July 6-Aug. 14, has been canceled, Executive Director Marline Martin said.
“The health and safety of our youth arts education community have always remained paramount within our work and remains our steadfast compass in making difficult decisions,” Martin said. “We are currently working with teaching artists to provide 10-15 minute videos in their respective genre to engage participants via social media and on the Council’s website. Families will have the opportunity to dance, sing, make art, a musical instrument or a theater activity in the safety of their homes. This will let our community know we are still dedicated to arts education and give comfort to those families we have grown with each summer.”
Columbia County sought authority from the state Department of Health to issue an executive order closing both day and overnight camps.
The recent order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo for schools to remain closed through the remainder of the academic year lends strong support for the county’s decision, the Board of Supervisors said in a statement.
“Columbia County has learned that the executive order sought last month from the New York State Department of Health requesting that summer camps remain closed during the COVID-19 crisis has been denied,” Murell said Saturday.
Officials don’t know the reason it was turned down, Columbia County Department of Health Director Jack Mabb said.
“Greene County had a similar executive order that was approved and actually our county attorney used the language of the Greene County order to submit this one,” Mabb said.
A statewide order might be on the way regarding camps, Mabb said.
“I know a lot of the day camps that are run by towns have already begun to close and not plan on being open,” Mabb said. “The for-profit, the overnight camps are still waiting to hear. This delay puts them in a tough bind. A lot of them hire staff back in January, February.”
Despite the state’s denial, the Columbia County Department of Health and county leaders stand behind their recommendation that summer camps remain closed until further notice.
“The thinking at this time is that summer camps with children and counselors cannot properly maintain the social distancing necessary to keep everyone safe,” Murell said. “With that in mind, we sincerely hope that summer camps remain closed until such time as health officials deem it safe.”
The plan was to renew the order every five days until a determination was made that the camps are safe to open.
Some of the overnight camps have preemptively decided not to open, Mabb said, but many are awaiting recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health.
“We’ve been asking on our conference calls with the state Health Department for the last three weeks, and they all say it’s pending,” Mabb said.
The CDC on Thursday released new guidance on how states can safely allow schools and businesses to reopen. The guidelines include summer camps.
The guidance assists camp directors in making reopening decisions by asking questions such as, ‘Are you ready to protect children and employees at higher risk for severe illness?’ and providing checklists for putting safeguards in place.
It recommends camps make plans for an outbreak and encourages staggered drop-offs, intensified cleaning and smaller groups.
Olana canceled its summer youth program last week, Olana Partnership President Sean Sawyer said.
Guidance from the state health departments has been slow to arrive, but Sawyer said they made the decision earlier than anticipated.
“[Parents] need as much time as possible to figure out what their options are for the summer with kids and everything,” Sawyer said.
Olana usually has three weeks with 25 children each for its Panorama summer youth camp, and planned to expand its camps before the public-health crisis began.
“We’re obviously providing a refund to all the parents who had registered,” Sawyer said. “A number of them are taking up the opportunity to make it as a donation, which is really, really wonderful and encouraging.”
Although the camp is mostly outdoors, Sawyer said Olana couldn’t see a way for the camp to operate with children ages 6 to 12 under social distancing restrictions.
“We didn’t feel that we could have kids wear masks and keep far enough apart in the summer camp environment that it was going to be a worthwhile experience,” Sawyer said.
The path for the Catskill Community Center’s annual summer recreation program, which runs for five weeks each summer, Monday through Friday, remains unclear, Executive Director Margaret Tomlinson said.
“I suppose there is still some chance we will be able to hold it as usual if the coronavirus is sufficiently reduced by then,” she said. “We need some alternative. We are working on mapping that out right now.”
The Plan B is to send art packages to the children at their homes, Tomlinson said.
“We are trying to remain hopeful and optimistic,” Tomlinson said. “At the same time, our plan has to be very flexible. Our priority is the safety of the community.”
The program is typically held at Elliott Park in Catskill, weather permitting, and moved to the community center if needed, she said.
Last year the program served roughly 30 children and the community center extended the hours into the afternoon, Tomlinson said.
This year the center was considering expanding the program an additional two weeks, she said.
“I have a huge amount of sympathy for parents in difficult situations, either parents who have lost work or are working at essential businesses, which makes it difficult for them to supervise their children,” Tomlinson said. “We want to do anything we can to help.”
With the New York On PAUSE order, the center had to suspend other youth programs such as its cooking workshops, Youth Drop-In Center and before- and after-school care for elementary students. For the Drop-In program, teens and pre-teens come to the center between 2:30 and 6:30 p.m. and have access to computers at the community center’s media lab to do their homework, or they can play outside on the basketball court, Tomlinson said.
The Athens Cultural Center is also developing social distancing-friendly programming, Board President Dawna Johnson said.
“This summer is going to be very different and we are still in the process of outlining what that’s going to look like,” she said. “We are trying to think of some things where kids will not be in close contact, maybe a scavenger hunt or painting rocks that they leave around town. Of course, they all want to play together but that can’t happen this summer. It’s critical we keep kids safe.”
The center typically offers art classes July to August for students in first through seventh grade. The classes can range in size from 15 to 40 students, Johnson said.
The center is collaborating with the Athens Summer Recreation Program and the D.R. Evarts Memorial Library to develop a program for youth, Johnson said. It may incorporate outdoor activities and art projects via Zoom.
“We have to keep kids entertained but also safe, and also keep instructors safe as well,” she said.
The Chatham Town Board held a special meeting Friday, in part to discuss summer camps. The town introduced a resolution to cancel its six-week 2020 summer camp program at Crellin Park.
Many Columbia County camps applied for and received their permits for the summer earlier this year, Mabb said.
As regions of New York begin to reopen, parents who rely on summer camps for child care will begin returning to work.
“I think some of the schools are looking at that question and seeing if they can be part of that solution,” Mabb said. “That’s going to be a real problem for a lot of parents.”
Child care providers in the Capital Region are coordinating to cover the need, and Mabb said a similar solution needs to be offered in Columbia County.
Abby Hoover is a reporter for Columbia-Greene Media. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.