SCHOHARIE COUNTY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — A company operating two summer camps in Schoharie County faces more than $60,000 in fines after local officials say the camps have been violating coronavirus restrictions. Director of Schoharie County Public Health Dr. Amy Gildemeister says they’ve been trying to shut down The Zone Boys Camp and The Zone Girls Camp for more than two weeks.
“We started receiving numerous complaints shortly after we permitted The Zone to open as a temporary residence hotel facility,” Gildemeister says.
“The neighbors were saying there were large numbers of people there, that they were not observing COVID-19 restrictions. We also received a complaint from a parent of someone who was staying there who suggested that there were cases of illness at The Zone,” she goes on to say.
She confirms the county issued a permit and accepted a health and safety plan from The Zone camps for them to operate strictly with families and of-age guests. She says when inspectors visited to investigate complaints from community members, they found dozens of minors without parents.
“That was a concern for us, because The Zone is not supposed to be operating as a children’s camp,” Gildemeister explains to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton. “It became clear to us they were not adhering to the safety plan they submitted to us.”
“They are being jeopardized by being allowed to be in the camp, and we have seen that some of them don’t have masks on and they are very close. There’s not that six feet separation between them,” says Jefferson Town Supervisor Peggy Hait.
Hait also says she’s received reports and witnessed children leaving the facilities to take trips around the county as recently as Sunday afternoon.
“There were about 60 of the kids were out riding bikes down Shew Hollow Road, which runs from Route 10 to Route 30 here in Schoharie County. One car was leading, there was one car in the middle, and then behind the bikers was The Zone vehicle which made it obvious to us that those children were coming from the boys camp,” she describes.
“Our neighbors are very concerned about catching this virus. You know, in Schoharie County our numbers are very low, so a crowded gathering and not following protocols, I mean it is a big concern for us,” Hait goes on to say.
Gildemeister confirms The Zone camps were issued a cease and desist on July 29, and deferred an order to vacate the premises to August 2, to allow the campers and staff to observe the Sabbath. The camps are centered around Orthodox Jewish heritage and are operated by the New Jersey company Oorah.
They’ve now been cited for every day they stayed open in violation, totaling more than $60,000 as of Tuesday.
When NEWS10 visited The Zone Boy’s Camp on Tuesday afternoon, we were initially met with resistance to our presence and shooting video. We were also told the executive director, Avrohom Brog, was unavailable to speak on the camps operations.
Finally, we were directed to a long time volunteer who claims there are no campers or activities this summer.
“The camp is now strictly, only the campgrounds, our only families that are here in a caretaking position,” says Ralph Zucker, the designated spokesperson for The Zone.
In addition to denying the facilities are operating as their normal summer sleepaway camps, Zucker says both The Zone Boys and Girls camps have a system for keeping their guests safe from coronavirus.
“You see this emerald bracelet here?” he asks while holding up his arm to show a disposable wristband. “My wife and I are the only ones with emerald bracelets, that indicates to others we are a husband and wife and therefore don’t need to socially distance from each other. Same with our other guests, they all have wristbands to help the children understand they’re safe with their families and who they can and can’t play with.”
He called the minors the health department cited them for “employees” who have since been sent home.
“Some people that are here as helpers, workers that help in different roles, such as food and in the kitchen. Since we were met by the Department of Health and they told us that this would not work out, we sent all of those people home,” Zucker explains.
“Staff are not allowed to be under the age of 18 and staying at a temporary residence, under the current coronavirus guidelines,” Dr. Gildemeister replies to that claim.
Zucker says he has volunteered at the camp with his wife for around 13 years.
“I’ve never really seen such a history of selective enforcement and non-cooperation as I’ve seen here,” he says.
“I took a ride around the county on Sunday just to compare and see how our standards are being held up. For example, in state parks I have photographs of birthday parties with people coming and going, with balloons, clearly not all one family, and being crowded in a local state park very near here where people were also not social distancing and there was not a mask in sight,” he replied when asked about the coronavirus restrictions cited by the county.
“Same thing for the pool, same thing for a baseball game. We are trying to live by the higher standard that has been placed on us, but why would we be held to a standard that the state and the county don’t hold themselves to?” he asks.
He also says he believes there’s another reason The Zone and its Orthodox Jewish parent company Oorah are the center of such scrutiny.
“As soon as people understood that this was going to be an Orthodox Jewish camp, we were clearly unwelcome. This is not going to be the first place where zoning laws and regulatory agencies have been used in order to try to either limit or discourage the Orthodox community from coming to a place,” Zucker says.
“We would like to have a conversation about what we can do right, rather than just coming in and citing chapter and verse — citation, citation, citation. We want to do the right thing. Help us understand what you want rather than just coming out at us with violation after violation,” he continues.
NEWS10 also received a formal statement from an Oorah representative which reads:
Oorah is very conscientious about the health and safety of the families who have joined us this summer for weekend retreats. We have not opened a children’s camp this season. We have had no instances of COVID on either campus this summer. We have taken health and safety precautions that are above and beyond all legal requirements, including having medical staff on each campus and requiring negative COVID tests from all staff and family attendees.Wendy Kirwan, Oorah communications
Hait says the town and county have contacted the NYS Department of Health to figure out what their next step should be. She says they’re trying to avoid sending law enforcement in to arrest the rabbi and staff in charge.
“You know, to have the police go in there in front of all the children, that would be a scary situation so if we can help not doing that, that would be the best route, but they need to, to me, they need to listen to what we’ve asked them to do for the safety of their children and also the safety of the community,” she says.
NEWS10 also reached out to the NYS Department of Health and received the following statement:
The New York State Department of Health will continue to aggressively hold camp operators accountable for following all COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. As this involves ongoing litigation, we cannot comment further at this time.