Amid the coronavirus pandemic, which was particularly brutal in New York State, Gov. Andrew Cuomo prohibited overnight camps from opening this summer. The theory is that the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks outweighs the need for children to get away to camp after months of lockdown at home. But not all agree.
Jewish summer camp enthusiasm runs high through all religious denominations, but most Reform and Conservative overnight camps announced fairly early that they would not convene this summer. Orthodox camps were slower to respond, but many reluctantly canceled their programs. Others — particularly some private camps — rented space in nearby states that don’t have the same restrictions, planning to open camp under a modified program.
But some New Yorkers are going further. The Association of Jewish Camp Operators, which represents dozens of camps serving Orthodox children, along with parents who want to send their children to summer camp, sued Cuomo in federal court in Albany, seeking to have his overnight camp prohibition overturned. They argue that the restriction impinges the free exercise of religion by families who want to have their children immersed in religious life and learning at camp. And they cite Cuomo’s inconsistent allowance and promotion under the First Amendment of thousands of New Yorkers who protested against racism, police brutality, and the death of George Floyd.
According to supporters like State Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein, “If you’re saying no to sleepaway camps, what is your solution to thousands of young adults not having structure, not having an educational structure, not being in a controlled environment?” And on a personal note, he said: “I speak to you as a parent, not just as an assemblyman. Do you think for a second I would send [my daughter] if I believed that her life or anyone else’s life would be at risk?”
We get the point. And we sympathize with the arguments advanced by the plaintiffs. We also understand the governor’s concerns, as explained by Dr. Howard Zucker, New York’s Health Commissioner, who warned: “In such a setting, even a single positive case in a camper or staff member could create an untenable quarantine situation and overwhelm camp health personnel that may not be able to handle a serious infectious outbreak of this nature.”
Much is not yet known about the coronavirus. It seems generally to spare young children, but can cause potentially deadly illness. We also see that the virus continues to spread, and has resurged, in states where restrictions have been relaxed. While the allowance of protest demonstrations may have been ill-advised, they weren’t planned, studied, and programmatically embraced. They erupted spontaneously from the outrages that precipitated them. Besides, two wrongs don’t make a right.
While we agree that overnight camping is a desirable activity for religious, social, and educational reasons, we believe the state — especially one that’s suffered such grievous losses already — should have the right to say that significant health concerns are reason to keep camps closed.