For a while there, it looked like there’d be no summer — at least a traditional summer in the “mountains” — for many mostly Orthodox Jewish New Yorkers fleeing sweltering city sidewalks.
But armed with bottles of hand sanitizer near mailboxes and instructions for grocery deliveries, operators of bungalow colonies in the Catskill counties of Sullivan, Orange and Ulster are looking at a saved — and perhaps even a smash — season.
It won’t be a typical one, though, in this time of Covid-19.
In a typical year, families who drive up from Brooklyn and Manhattan to Scott Rosmarin’s bungalow cottages in Monroe tend to spend the Memorial Day weekend there before going back to the city. They return in late June or early July, when their schools close for the summer.
In the weeks before the late May holiday weekend, as it looked like the Covid crisis was easing and parts of New York State were reopening, Rosmarin said he received an unusually high number of calls from New Yorkers asking about the availability of some of the 95 units at Rosmarins Cottages.
And several veteran “bungaleers” (Rosmarin’s term) told him they were having internet access installed in the cottages they plan to occupy this year — the whole summer, not just on weekends. Men and women, it seemed, are finding it just as easy to work at a computer and home-school the kids at a bungalow in the Catskills as in the city. After Memorial Day, Rosmarin noticed more cars in the colony’s parking lot than he had seen in past years.
“People don’t want to go back into the city,” he said.
That’s good news for an area that counts on the tens of thousands of seasonal customers for revenue, and for the upstate synagogues that depend on the three-months-a-year daveners to make up their minyans and crowds at other events.
With many Jewish day camps and overnight camps having closed, the need to offer city kids open space has become more pressing.
For parents whose children’s summer camps have closed, “this is the next best thing,” said Shira Dicker, a publicist who writes a blog titled “Bungalow Babe in the Big City.”
Bungalow veteran Jerry Schreck, a former marketing executive from Brooklyn’s charedi Flatbush neighborhood who is familiar with the Modern Orthodox, “black hat” and chasidic colonies, says all of them “are going up this year.”
Malka, a mother of six young children from Flatbush, who asked that her last name not be used, was even more emphatic. “Everyone is going — even people who do not go usually are going this year.”
Yossi Frimmerman, owner of Mountain Crest Bungalows in Woodbourne, which serves the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic community, said, “The people who have been coming to us for years are anxious to come again. They have been cooped up for two months. The kids have been climbing the walls in their [city] homes. The bungalows give them a break from the parents, and give the parents a break from the kids.”
To lessen the risk of infection, Frimmerman said he has suggested that bungalow residents have their groceries delivered from nearby stores, or that the husbands do their shopping at home — mostly in Crown Heights — before they drive up for the weekend.
“People are going to take precautions,” said Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, director of New York government relations at Agudath Israel of America and a longtime bungalow resident.
The annual getaway tradition, which attracted diverse groups of Jews in the mid-20th century before becoming a mostly Orthodox ritual, looked uncertain earlier this spring, when several municipalities in the region declined to issue occupancy permits as a public health measure. In March and April, prospective bungalow residents were wary of spending time in venues where social distancing and other safety measures might be difficult to follow.
In March, Steve Vegliante, supervisor of the Town of Fallsburg, suspended certificates of occupancy for camps and bungalow colonies in the town, based on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ban on gatherings of more than 50 people and recommendation that groups of more than 10 people should also be avoided. That followed a press release by Sullivan County Director of Public Health Nancy McGraw and Sullivan County Manager Josh Potosek urging visitors to the county to stay home.
Similarly, in early April, Ulster County Health Commissioner Dr. Carol Smith issued a memo stating the county health department would not grant seasonal or annual permits to summer camps, bungalow colonies or campgrounds as a result of the coronavirus spreading rapidly through the area.
Those declarations subsequently lapsed as the grip of the coronavirus eased.
“When the coronavirus started, the board of directors started Zoom meetings to make several determinations for the summer 2020. We did a wait-and-see approach,” said Paul Neiger, vice president of Lansman’s Housing Corporation in Woodbourne, which in 1985 changed its legal status from a standard bungalow colony to a co-op. Neiger said he received an email from the Town of Fallsburg’s attorney on May 9 saying that “we would be able to go forward. We have been in contact with all our shareholders and while some have said no to coming to the bungalow colony, most are ready to spend their summer upstate at Lansmans.”
The mass hesitancy about going to the bungalows never developed, Rosmarin said. “I only had two people who were afraid to come because of the virus. People can’t wait to get here.”
He’s had the cottages thoroughly cleaned to allay residents’ fears, and provided hand sanitizer near the mailboxes, he said, adding that the open spaces of a bungalow colony — and no shared elevators or hallways — make social distancing easier to manage than in the city’s apartment buildings. “It’s their own little house. They keep it clean.”
Schreck, for one, is looking for a particular metric to mark the health of this bungalow season: how many yeshiva boys of summer take the field. A Sunday-morning Orthodox softball league, with some two-dozen teams sponsored by area businesses, has been popular with families, which watched the competition, picnic-style, from the outlying fields, Schreck said.
Schreck, who formerly served as the league’s commissioner, said he’s closely watching how many teams take part this season compared to last.
“I’m very interested in what happens,” he said. “That would be a barometer of how successful the bungalow season will be.”