Eichenstein: Cuomo’s Ruling on Camps ‘Makes Zero Sense’

New York state Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein joined other officials to bust open Dome Playground in Boro Park on Tuesday, defying Mayor de Blasio’s closure of playgrounds. (Benjamin Kanter)

New York State Assemblyman Simcha Eichenstein had lobbied the Cuomo Administration for six weeks to allow camps to open this summer, as the coronavirus pandemic has waned and all regions of the state are now in one phase or another of reopening.

Eichenstein spoke with Hamodia on Tuesday, four days after the administration announced that, despite day camps being allowed to open, sleepaway camps would be banned.

 

What was your reaction when you heard the news late Friday afternoon that sleepaway camps will be banned in New York state this summer?

I received a text message shortly before the official announcement. I was very disappointed, and I think the governor is 100% wrong.

Quite frankly, after all the negotiations, the back and forth, over the last six weeks, I was surprised that that’s the decision that the governor came to.

I think there were many ways this could have been handled aside from just “yes” or “no.” And I was actually very surprised that it was a hard “no, under no circumstances.”

The announcement was made in the form of a written statement by Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker. Do you believe that this was actually Dr. Zucker’s decision, or do you believe that Cuomo just had the commissioner release the statement because he wanted political cover for what he knew would be a controversial decision?

When this effort to allow camps to open began six weeks ago, the conversations were actually around both sleepaway camps and day camps. Once the governor announced two weeks ago that day camps could open, the effort was obviously solely focused on sleepaway camps. But for a month, the conversation was about both day camps and sleepaway camps. How convenient for the governor to make the announcement about day camps himself — because those were allowed to open — but when it came to sleepaway camps, because they were not allowed to open, all of a sudden it was the health commissioner’s announcement. Don’t be fooled. At the end of the day, there is one chief executive in this state, and that is the governor.

This was the governor’s decision to make. And when the governor and health commissioner were asked about the camp closures at the following day’s press conference, the commissioner said that during the pandemic, “This has been one of the tougher decisions that I have had to make about, or pass the message on, you know, pass the advice on …”

The health commissioner can make a recommendation, but ultimately the buck stops at the governor’s desk. This was the governor’s decision. I don’t get fooled by these political games that when it comes to the day camps, that’s good news so the governor announces it, but when it’s about sleepaway camps, it’s not good news, so they have the commissioner announce it. We know whose decision it is ultimately.

It seems that you believe that the decision was not based only on the health commissioner’s recommendation. So why do you believe, ultimately the governor decided to close the camps?

Well, I am very surprised that this is what his ultimate decision was. I find it very hard to believe that this was solely based on the recommendations from the Health Department, because we have worked together with camp directors and medical experts, we’ve put together some really impressive documents. I was on many, many conference calls; on these conference calls, the medical concerns were addressed.

And by the way, these were not just some local doctors. We’re talking about some real medical experts.

Even Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA commissioner, has said publicly, at a CNBC health-care conference, that he believes that “Sleepaway camps have the potential to create a protective bubble.”

There was an article written in The Atlantic by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel — who worked at the National Institutes of Health — about how important sleepaway camps are and how they can be opened the right way and safely.

I really don’t believe that this was solely based on the medical concerns, because I actually don’t believe that the medical concerns are that great, after listening in to all these conversations. I’m not a medical expert, I can’t speak to most of what the doctors were talking about, but I was listening in on those conversations, and I’ve read the documents that they have put together. This is not a politician trying to make the medical case; this was done by medical experts.

And put aside the argument of the positives outweighing the negatives. Just the concerns of how to create this bubble, and the testing — it can be done and it makes sense.

If you actually think about it, it makes no sense that day camps are less of a concern than sleepaway camps from a medical perspective.

It makes zero sense that the medical community is okay with day camps, but not sleepaway camp. Sleepaway camps, if anything, should be less of a concern.

So if it was not a medical decision, why do you believe the governor banned sleepaway camps?

I’ve been struggling with that.

I don’t think it’s fair for me to throw out potential theories without being able to back them up concretely, but again, I find it hard to believe that this was a solely medical-based, health-based decision.

Do you believe that there was opposition from the upstate counties and towns, where the camps are located, and that they were lobbying against the sleepaway camps, and that ultimately is what carried the day?

Earlier on we got pushback from some of the counties. We’ve actually been in touch with some of the counties, and in the last couple of weeks, we’ve really not gotten much pushback from the counties. At the end of the day I do not believe that that was much of a factor.

So do you believe that Dr. Zucker’s statement was just used by the administration as political cover for Cuomo’s decision which was really based on another reason, or do you believe that Dr. Zucker really believed that statement that he put out, and the governor simply chose not to override him?

Dr. Zucker does not put out a statement on something like this without approval from the governor. The governor has made it clear throughout the entire reopening process that he is the one that makes the decisions on reopening.

I’ll tell you what the facts are the way I see it, and all your readers can decide for themselves why is it that day camps, the good news, was announced on a weekday by the governor, while sleepaway camps, the bad news, was announced on a Friday just before 5 p.m. which in the world of journalism is referred to as a Friday news dump. [Ed.’s note: The “Friday news dump” is a technique used by politicians to release controversial news Friday evening, just before the weekend, in the hope that it will get less attention.]

Do you believe that Zucker told the governor that he wants to ban camps and put out a statement banning it, or do you believe the governor said to Zucker, “I want to ban camps, so I need you to write a statement banning them”?

I don’t know who went to whom. I believe there are conversations going on. But ultimately, it’s the governor’s decision. Could it be that amongst the members of his administration, there is disagreement on issues? I’m sure. That’s healthy. Every executive wants to have different perspectives within his administration. In business as well as in politics. But ultimately, it all comes together and lands on someone’s desk, and there’s one person who needs to make that decision. That’s the governor.

So if you don’t believe the decision was solely medically based, and there wasn’t a significant opposing lobbying effort by the upstate localities in recent weeks, why do you believe Gov. Cuomo banned the camps?

First, let me say that I do think they were fearful of the responsibility.

But honestly, I think it’s a question that you have to ask the governor — and I would really love to hear the answer myself.

On that note of being fearful of the responsibility: I know that you and many others seem to be totally advocating for camps’ opening. Is there any concern, on your part and on the part of others you’ve been dealing with, that maybe camps should indeed be closed? I’m asking because it seems that you’ve been all for it.

First and foremost, I would never, never, ever advocate for anything that potentially puts our children’s lives, or anyone’s lives, at risk. And I don’t only say this as an assemblyman.

This was to be the first year that my 13-year-old daughter was going to sleepaway camp; she was super-excited. I was going to send my own child to camp. As a father, I would never send my child if I wasn’t certain that this could be done in a safe manner.

This is not a political person saying it’s safe. We had an impressive team of medical experts that came together, all saying this could be done.

We had 19 pages of guidance, outlining exactly how everything was going to work, from the testing to the protocols, to the staff to the “protective bubble.” It was really impressive.

I would never push something unless I’m certain that we’re not endangering anyone’s life.

Can you take our readers now into the details of the lobbying effort? I know this one question could be a five-hour discussion. But if you can tell us, somewhat briefly, the story of this lobbying effort.

new york camps
A child protesting for camp openings, in Williamsburg last week. (@WMSBG)

You’re right; it could be a five hour discussion!

But I’ll start by saying that in general, whenever it comes to advocacy, it’s always a delicate balance of when do you start a public campaign versus having private conversations. When do you want to apply public pressure versus letting these conversations just gradually happen. All these things are always a balance.

About six weeks ago I started engaging the governor’s office about camps.

The city had already announced that the school system would remain closed for the remainder of the school year. The hope was that if we could open camps, we knew that it would be tough to get government to agree to open schools, given that they had shut the school system for the remainder of the school year. But at the time, the thought was that if the government agreed to allow camps to open, since the kids weren’t in school perhaps the camps could even open a couple of weeks or a month earlier than usual.

But as negotiations were dragging on, it became clear that would be unlikely.

We had guidance that I’ve mentioned, which were produced by medical experts and camp directors. People also have to understand that aside from the actual guidance, there are many other pieces to it. For example, when we discuss testing, you have to ensure that you actually have the test kits available. You have to ensure that there’s a lab that’s willing to do it and is committed to testing, thousands of test kits. We had a lab lined up willing to do it. There were other concerns as it relates to the local region. For example, the local hospital: Sullivan County’s Harris Hospital. If, chas v’shalom, something happens, Harris Hospital would be overwhelmed. How do we handle that? That’s a concern to the governor’s office. Hatzolah agreed to transport downstate should there chas v’shalom be an uptick in cases.

So it’s not only about the actual guidance and the protective bubble. It’s also how you deal with things beyond the bubble, should that become necessary.

I was in touch with many Litvishe Rabbanim and Chassidishe Rebbes. They unanimously told me to go ahead with this effort. In fact, they were constantly calling me for updates about where things stand, how does the situation look, how can we be helpful.

Earlier on we were in touch with some of the non-Jewish camps as well. But as it got closer to the camp season, unfortunately, those camps started making the decision that it would be tough for them to open, and many decided against it.

During the course of the conference calls, it became clear that the Health Department was taking the position against opening. We tried to address all these concerns. But ultimately I don’t know that they were ever going to move anyway despite all the concerns being addressed. That’s my guess, my personal sense.

Who did you speak to in the administration?

I’ve been in touch with literally the entire senior staff, constantly. This was not something that was thrown to lower-level staffers.

There were numerous conference calls. The engagement was there.

Early last week, it became pretty clear that it was going to be nearly impossible to move the Health Department off their “no” decision.

So I came up with an idea that I pitched to the governor’s office. I said, “Why don’t we place sleepaway camps in Phase 4 of the reopening.” Phase 4 officially includes “arts/entertainment/recreation” and “education” and other large gatherings.

They had decided to a standalone announcement on camps — which seemed pretty clear would be a “no” — rather than including it in the four phases. So I said, “Put it in Phase 4, where it rightfully belongs with other large gatherings. If you’re going to open museums and recreational centers, why can’t we have a bubble-environment sleepaway camp?

Sullivan County is already now in Phase 2. They’ll be in Phase 4 by the second week of July at the latest.

But this proposal I made to the governor’s senior staff, to include camps in Phase 4, even that was rejected.

So when we started this interview, I said I was very disappointed by the decision to ban camps, but I was also very surprised that they landed at such a hard “no” — I believed that there were other ways to go about this; this is one of the other options I was referring to. Their unwillingness to even allow for some possibility of sleepaway camps reopening in any form.

During the negotiations, did you point out that if sleepaway camps would be banned, they’ll just have day camps at the site, which will run from morning until night, like a regular camp except for the sleeping?

The governor’s entire reopening plan is filled with inconsistencies and makes absolutely no sense.

It makes no sense that day camps in which children are going home every night can operate, yet sleepaway camps, where they’re in a protective bubble, can’t operate. For the same reason that it makes no sense why a small business in Boro Park can’t be open, perhaps with a limited capacity or even by appointment only, while big-box chain stores, can be packed without any regard for social distancing.

The entire reopening plan makes no sense.

That can be another five-hour conversation — just to go into all the inconsistencies of the reopening!

In day camps, the kids are together all day, then at night they go back into the regular population, then they come back to camp the next day. But in the sleepaway camp, they’re together all the time and never go back into the regular population, and ultimately interact with fewer people.

Correct. It makes no sense.

And by the way, the fact of the matter is that many of these camps are now going to go to other states that have allowed sleepaway camps. So what did you accomplish by banning camps in New York?

Do you believe this decision is final or is the lobbying effort continuing? Do you believe there is a chance that New York might reverse this decision?

We never give up. But I find it very hard to believe that the governor will reverse this decision tomorrow.

Many people are saying, “Look at what these huge Black Lives Matters protests have accomplished in such a short time. Why doesn’t the Jewish community take 50,000 kids, who are not in yeshivah anyway now, bus them into Albany and make massive demonstrations?”

We’ve had those conversations. I will say this: on all the calls, the governor’s people know the numbers. They know that there are 42,000 Jewish children who attend sleepaway camp in New York. The numbers were clear; that piece resonated well.

It’s all part of advocacy. You try to do whatever you can. You push on all fronts.

There’s a feeling that some in government may believe that summer camp is a luxury for rich children, and don’t realize that in the Orthodox community, there are many large families living in small homes in the city, and for them, even from middle- or lower-income families, camp is a way of life, not a luxury. Do you believe that the Cuomo administration has that belief, or do they fully realize what camp means to the Orthodox community?

I think the administration understood what camp means to our community.

If, after all is said and done, this decision is not reversed, what will summer 2020 look like for New York children?

Some camps will obviously go out of state.

There’s the potential of a lawsuit to try to overturn the camp ban.

You’ll see day camp greatly expanded here in the city and in the Catskills.

Even some of the teens, who normally go to sleepaway camp, I’m sure there will be day camps for them.

But I’m not going to lie: I’m very concerned. This is part of the advocacy when we were talking to the governor’s office. The reality is that our children have now been home for three months. They need structure. They need educational programming. And we cannot have thousands of children, thousands of young adults roaming the streets in boredom.

It’s easy for the governor to sit in the governor’s mansion and hand out orders. But if you’re going to say no to structured educational programming for our children, what is your plan? What is your alternative? Because this will just create chaos.

And if we have chaos on the streets because our children are not in a structured setting, that’s on Governor Cuomo.

rborchardt@hamodia.com