BELMAR — The borough’s mayor, trying to address residents’ fears that summer camp may be canceled this year, said the decision will hinge on how the pandemic plays out in the coming months.
For parents hoping to send their children to the borough’s summer camp this year, that answer was not good enough. Multiple parents, speaking during the public comment portion of the council’s Feb. 16 meeting, urged the borough to not cancel the camp for the second year in a row.
Addressing the issue at the start of the meeting, Mayor Mark Walsifer said that borough officials do want to hold the annual summer camp, but are waiting for state restrictions on those programs to be loosened.
“We have to have limited programs so that we can conform to what the governor has [decided], [and] I think there would be some residents that won’t be able to get in and will still be upset,” he said. “I think that as we go through a couple more months, we are going to see what the governor comes out with. But, believe me, we want to get these programs up and running for our kids.”
“We are conscious of what is going on and we are just waiting on some direction as this pandemic moves forward and as the vaccines roll out and see where we are going to be in April and May,” he said, adding that the borough has received “many emails on the issue.” Antoinette Raucci Aumack, a parent who said she was voicing concerns shared by others, said that the state did not prohibit municipal summer camps and other nearby municipalities have decided to continue with their camps.
“How are all surrounding towns already having camps and we are not? I want to hear an answer,” she said. She also questioned why the borough’s schools were able to open and the borough’s beachfront still operated last summer despite the pandemic. “We need to get our kids doing some kind of program, some kind of activities. That is why we moved to this town.”
A group calling itself Belmar/Lake Como Parents created a petition on the website Change.org titled “ Bring Back Belmar Rec Programs + Summer Camp/Junior Guards in 2021,” which was signed by around 300 people, out of a goal of 500.
“Last year we were disappointed, but understanding, of the Administration’s decision to put a pause on Belmar Recreation Summer Camp/Junior Guards given the concern and uncertainty around COVID,” the petition stated. “But with a year of learning behind us, we are hopeful that the Administration will reconsider for 2021 as the positive momentum of vaccinations continues. Our children are resilient. They have proven they can mask for school. They have demonstrated their adaptability through continued uncertainty – they deserve the certainty of summer camp and the opportunity to thrive as much as our businesses and town revenue! Please bring back Belmar Rec Programs!”
Belmar canceled its summer camp, which is also open to residents of Lake Como and students attending St. Rose Grammar School, for the 2020 season. The program lasted for eight weeks, from June 22 to Aug. 14. In case of rain, the camp takes place either at the Taylor Pavilion or the Belmar Recreation Department’s gym on Main Street.
Executive Order 149, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy last year, restricts how summer camps can operate during the COVID-19 pandemic. Summer camps were given the green light to continue by the governor last July, but under strict guidelines. Besides social distancing, mask-wearing and practicing good hygiene, the state’s summer youth standards require one adult for every 10 campers for indoor camps and one adult for every 20 campers for outdoor camps. Different camp groups are not allowed to intermingle.
In order to comply with those restrictions, the mayor said, the borough would have to hire “three or four times the amount of employees” and only a limited number of campers would be able to participate in the program. “If we set it in place now, it would be very, very limited and costly.”
The latest the borough would have to decide whether to hold the summer camp is May, he added.
Multiple parents spoke during the Feb. 16 meeting, which oftentimes veered into fierce debate.
Maria Rondinaro, stating her support, said that if Belmar Elementary School is able to have in-person lessons, it is feasible for the borough to have outdoor summer camps. “I think it is much safer even than in an indoor program, and I am sure they can give you their experience on their protocols,” she said.
Other parents directly questioned the mayor on his decision.
Paul Aumack said that if the borough cancels its camp while other municipalities continue to hold them, it “would be an issue of electability for you in the future.” “We are very passionate about this issue,” he added.
Virginia Conklin said that she was frustrated that activities for children had been “slacking before COVID,” citing the borough’s cancellation of movies at the beach due to a broken movie projector, the canceled recreation ski trip and “we barely have a baseball team.” “For me as a mother of two young kids here, I feel like this town doesn’t want to have any kids’ activities,” she said. “I grew up in this town. I had all the beautiful things that kids are supposed to have in town and I don’t feel like that is happening in our town.”
“My feeling is that in April and May when we go back to revisit this, we are going to stand by the governor’s code of ‘no we can’t have it,’ ” she added, speaking of summer camp. Seema Bhol asked the mayor: “What is the legacy you want to leave behind? What is it that you stand for?”
When the mayor responded by saying that right now he is trying to move the borough through COVID-19 and “trying to keep everyone safe,” she countered by saying that other towns have been “agile” to adapt to the pandemic “except for Belmar.”
“Do you want to be a leader or do you want to be someone who is known to take the easy road out?” she asked, eliciting a response from the mayor who said he was not taking the easy way out.
Not all comments were opposing the stance of the governing body. Kelly Lang spoke in support of the borough’s decision, saying that she “commended” the governing body for wanting to do things “safely and legally for the town.”
“I appreciate the fact that you guys are taking this seriously … I think if you look at what other towns are doing, other towns have cases and other towns are closing down,” she said. “I really, really appreciate that you are looking to the safety of our children because that is what is really important.”
In an effort to calm the mood, Councilman James McCracken said that he understands that residents are experiencing “COVID fatigue” and that he understands the frustration on the issue.
“I would like our municipality to return to normal. I would like to have the surf camp. I would like to have junior lifeguards and I would like to have the camps for the Belmar children that we have always had,” Mr. McCracken said, “But I have also seen the death and the suffering that this disease has caused for a lot of people, and we certainly don’t want to see that happen again.”
Borough Administrator Edward Kirschenbaum Sr. said officials have multiple concerns regarding summer camp. If it rains, camp would have to be held indoors, which carries capacity restrictions. If a child or multiple children contract COVID-19, it would be not only a health issue, but also a “moral” dilemma for the borough.
“We care about the safety of our children. What is worse than having a program in Belmar is if a child or someone else dies from COVID because we didn’t cross our T’s or dotted our I’s,” he said.
“If one child gets sick or a counselor gets sick or a volunteer gets sick or a first responder gets sick on something we didn’t follow through with the guidelines, this is a lot worse morally, ethically and emotionally than people not being able to go to camp,” he said.
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