ALBANY — The protocol is 23 pages long, but the bottom line is this: Overnight and day camps for children can operate in New York state this summer.
On Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the decision and the state Department of Health released the guidelines to protect campers and counselors from COVID-19.
The move comes just a few weeks before the start of summer, but it had been expected: Cuomo on Feb. 17 announced summer camps could begin planning for the 2021 season and would be allowed to operate, barring a turn for the worse in the pandemic.
Day camps were allowed to open in New York in 2020 but sleepaway camps were considered too risky and were barred from operation.
With statewide positive COVID tests running at a seven-month low in mid-May 2021, reopening is deemed safe, if done cautiously. The DOH guidelines on how to do this stretch 23 pages, with heavy detail on masking, social distancing and testing.
“To help ensure maximum protections for staff and children at child care and camp programs, we are issuing this guidance so the facilities can implement basic but critical measures that will allow them to operate safely,” Cuomo said Wednesday in a news release.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control in late April issued revised guidance on safely operating summer camps in the time of COVID.
Assemblyman Robert Smullen, R-Meco, has been among those critical of New York’s restrictive stance on children’s camps in 2020. He said Wednesday that New York should impose the fewest restrictions possible while still complying with CDC guidance, because the rules have damaged the industry and driven New York children to camps in other states.
“With almost no COVID cases, and with the new CDC guidelines in effect, the time to fully reopen and return the decision-making to New Yorkers is now. Anything less risks robbing our kids of memorable experiences and will likely lead to the end of a beloved summer tradition in New York.”
Susie Lupert, executive director of the American Camp Association of New York and New Jersey, said Wednesday her organization gave input as the state regulations were drawn up over the last three months and feels they are very workable.
Some parts are contradictory and should be adjusted, she said, but as a whole they are somewhat similar to the protocol followed last year by the camps that did operate in 2020.
Lupert said many of her members had been planning to reopen based on Cuomo’s announcement in February, and she hadn’t heard any negative feedback so far about the new regulations.
A key detail: Children can remove their masks during physical activity outdoors, if wearing masks would be uncomfortable.
Now, all that New York’s summer camps need is some employees to run them — the labor market is tight, Lupert said.
The Girl Scouts of Northeastern New York ran virtual day camps in 2020. This year it will run in-person day camp programs at the three camps it owns, two of which are normally overnight camps.
Interim Director of Girl Experience Amy Kelly said the uncertainty about COVID and the safety protocols surrounding it just lingered too long for the council to commit to operating any sleepaway camps this year — it needed time to review final regulations, come up with a safety plan and hire staff.
“I received those guidelines today,” Kelly said. “So right now we’re reviewing the document to make sure we’re compliant.”
There are no great surprises, she added: “It’s what you would have imagined.”
Camp Is-Sho-Da in East Greenbush is limited to half-capacity, 100 girls instead of 200, and is fully booked for the season, Kelly said.
The reopening of the Girl Scout camps is one more step toward normalcy, she said. The masking requirement for campers and counselors is one more reminder that normalcy isn’t here yet, but it’s also something everyone will have long since gotten used to when they arrive on-site on opening day.
The American Camp Association, a national trade group, said two weeks ago that a survey of its member camps showed that enrollment so far in 2021 is lower at 44% of camps, higher at 37% and about the same at 19%, compared with 2019. Nationwide, many camps were closed in 2020.
ACA conducted a survey in March of its members that did open last year. The 486 responding camp operators said they hosted 90,000 campers and saw confirmed COVID infections in a total of 30 campers and 72 employees.