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Most town summer recreation programs in limbo

Summer recreation programs serve thousands of young people and adults in every town on Long Island, but sign-ups have been pushed back and town officials say it’s not clear yet what programs they’ll be able to offer this summer. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost, John Paraskevas

Municipal recreation programs that have for decades introduced Long Islanders to swimming, sailing and a host of other activities are in limbo. 

From Hempstead to Shelter Island, softball and soccer leagues that would normally be well underway are canceled. Registration for summer camps and classes has been postponed by weeks, sometimes indefinitely, as local officials await direction from New York State. 

Rec programs serve thousands of Long Islanders, charging modest fees for most activities. Some offerings, like Huntington’s Project P.L.A.Y. and St. John’s Camp, are free for families who meet income requirements. Some programs generate revenue for their towns and provide summer jobs for young residents. Smithtown, for example, earned an estimated $630,000 in recreation fees last year, against $510,093 in expenses. 

In Southold, where officials have canceled all summer offerings, Supervisor Scott Russell said there was a chance that some programs could be restored, but “I don’t want to get people’s hopes up yet.”

The governor’s office and the state department of health did not respond to requests for comment. The website for New York Forward, the governor's plan for phased return of businesses in the state, lists arts, entertainment and recreation as phase four businesses.

One pressing issue is whether the public facilities that host many programs can be safely opened, and when. “Our major concern right now is whether we’ll be able to utilize the school district buildings,” Smithtown recreation director Thomas McCaffery said. The town usually rents elementary schools from three area school districts for a summer camp for about 1,200 children. Town officials are exploring private venues, but that complicates the permitting process. The program was scheduled to start in early July.

“If we don’t have something in place by the time graduation takes place” in June, “it looks grim,” town spokeswoman Nicole Garguilo said. 

It remains unclear if Babylon’s 50-year-old swim program, with race teams and lessons that usually start in late June at five neighborhood pools, will be able to use those pools. “If I was a betting man, I’d say not,” said Supervisor Rich Schaffer. Swimming lessons will likely be canceled, he said, though town officials will wait until June to decide about most programs.

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Some town officials said they hoped they could redesign programs for social distancing. Oyster Bay officials envision groups of no more than five children and one counselor, said town spokesman Brian Nevin. Groups would play at a distance from each other; to accommodate the resulting expansion, the program would spread to town parks it does not normally use. 

Hempstead officials have discussed modified or staggered summer camp hours. “If we can possibly alternate camp times or modify them to help working parents, we will,” town Supervisor Don Clavin said. 

If programs do operate, they may do so with a reduced menu of activities. In Smithtown, McCaffery has gamed this out: golf and windsurfing might work, because golfers could hit from every other stall at the town’s driving range and windsurfers ride their own boards; water skiing and sailing, which put people together on boats, might not. Camps for sports such as basketball and volleyball may have to be canceled because they bring players into close contact and use shared balls.

Shelter Island, where much recreational programming is based at a fitness center that has been shuttered since March, is exploring virtual offerings like crafts and puppet shows. “Participants will get a bag delivered with supplies and kids will Zoom in at a designated time” if the town goes that route, recreation director Bethany Ortmann said.

Managers of Long Island's privately run camps face similar uncertainty. Susie Lupert, executive director of the American Camp Association, NY and NJ, which represents 55 day and sleepaway camps on Long Island, said her members typically start preparing in March or even earlier. 

"It is imperative they understand as soon as possible how they can operate safely," she said. "They need to know if they should buy medical equipment," hire additional medical staff, and "what will happen if a child or staff member does contract a virus."

Parents like Kate and Justin Carey, a speech pathologist and special education teacher from Smithtown, are still hopeful the summer can be salvaged. Their three children — Kyle, 16, Taylor, 13, and Ronan, 9 — participate in recreation programs every year. “Summer was an opportunity where they got to learn something new and interesting,” Kate Carey said. Town programs like pottery or horseback riding might still work under social distancing rules, she said. 

Otherwise, she expects her family will take their boat out. “That’s the only option we have at this point, besides walking at the park or the beach.”

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