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Long Island summer camps begin canceling sessions, while many hold out hope

Mark Transport, the president of the Long Island Camps and Private Schools Association and the co-owner of Crestwood Country Day Camp in Melville, discusses how camps may change this summer. While some day camps have canceled their summer season, Transport is still aiming to open his with safety measures in place.    Credit: Newsday / Megan Miller; Skype; Coleman Country Day Camp

At least six day camps on Long Island have made the decision not to open this summer, with owners saying that with all the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, they don’t feel confident they will be able to keep children safe while running their traditional programs.

“There comes a time when it just stops being camp,” the owners of Merrick Woods in Merrick wrote in a letter sent to the families of its 500 campers. “As much as it pains me to make this announcement, I feel there is simply no clear avenue for us to provide a safe and healthy camp experience for you and your child this summer.”

Usdan Summer Camp for the Arts in Wheatley Heights, Buckley Day Camp in Roslyn, Shibley Day Camp in Roslyn Heights, Coleman Country Day Camp in Merrick, and Twin Oaks Day Camp in Freeport will also be closed this summer. Coleman sent a letter and emotional video saying that “at the end of the day, we came to the conclusion that there are too many variables that are out of our control.” Owner Ross Coleman called the decision “heart-wrenching” and the toughest one he’s ever made.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo also put a damper on the concept of camps opening at his daily coronavirus news conference on May 21, saying that the state’s eventual decision on summer day camps will be based on facts, and that the facts keep changing. He cited the development of the syndrome that shows symptoms similar to Kawasaki syndrome that has now affected more than  165 children across the state. “This information is more frightening than COVID respiratory illness in some ways because it inflames the heart,” Cuomo said. “Should I send my children to day camp? Is it safe? … As a parent, until I know how widespread this is, I would not send my children to day camp. And if I won’t send my children to day camp, I wouldn’t ask anybody else to send their children to day camp.”

However, Mark Transport, the co-owner of Crestwood Country Day Camp in Melville and president of the  Long Island Camps and Private Schools Association said that while some member camps are deciding to give up on the summer, the bulk of the camps in his 25-member organization are still hoping to open. They are expecting to receive more definitive guidelines from the state by  Friday, he said. “We still feel that  ... as the mania with [the illness like] Kawasaki syndrome dies down because they're not seeing the numbers go up, Gov. Cuomo is going to decide camps can open up with certain protocols,” he said.

Camps that are planning to open are thinking outside the box, Transport says, coming up with options such as having “rain days” similar to snow days, meaning camp won’t be held on days when rain would force campers indoors in groups.

Still, the camps that are waving the white flag said they couldn’t guarantee a safe and happy summer even if they meet all the requirements.

"I do think it's possible for camps to run during the pandemic ... but, mostly, we realized given the necessary changes we would have to make to the program for this summer, we couldn't give the families what they were expecting to get," says Lauren Brandt Schloss, executive director of Usdan, which serves 1,500 campers during a seven week summer focused on theater, dance, music and art.

“We have campers as young as 3,” says Merrick Woods co-owner Amy Langbart, whose camp serves hundreds of campers ages 3 to 14. “How do you not interact with them? When your main concern is staying away from each other, that’s not camp.” She says she couldn’t envision campers not being able to high-five each other, counselors having to wear masks, and the travel programs not being able to travel. “Everything was a hurdle,” Langbart said. “Every little thing.” Langbart noted that this is the first summer the camp will be closed since it opened in 1956.

Jenni Elman-Davis, co-owner of Twin Oaks Day Camp, says her parents bought the camp in 1975 when she was 2 years old, and that she hasn’t missed a summer. “I spent my whole day crying,” she said when camp made its announcement late last week.

Campers choked up as well hearing the news, parents say. "They had tears in their eyes," says Michelle Cohen, 44, a stay-at-home mom from Merrick whose three daughters, Aubrie, 9, Jenna, 8, and Sydnie, 6, have been going to Twin Oaks for years. "Our girls are very disappointed for sure."

Leigh DiScala, 45, an assistant principal from Wantagh, described her family as "devastated," even though she says she was relieved that Twin Oaks made the decision for her because she was on the fence about sending her children, Dylan, 9, and Lucas, 7. Says Dylan, who was hoping to attend Twin Oaks' travel camp: "I was pretty upset. This year was my first year of traveling every day."

This is the first year Coleman, open since 1983, will close for a summer as well. In the video featuring Coleman and his wife, Kelli, he tells families, “With all the emotion in the world, we start the countdown to summer 2021.”

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