BENNINGTON — The director of a youth camp now in progress on the former campus of Southern Vermont College said Monday his group has worked with local permitting officials and followed state regulations for such gatherings, including those related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moshe Perlstein, director of Zichron Chaim, added that he is disappointed that "a few neighbors" have spread rumors on social media about the camp and engaged in aggressive behavior, like taking videos of the group and registering complaints with the police.
"These are rumors that have zero truth to them at all," Perlstein said during a phone interview.
The concerns expressed in posts on Facebook and scores of attached comments focused primarily on whether attendees of the camp, with youth and others from New Jersey, might include many with COVID-19 and therefore pose a health threat to the Bennington area.
Others said that access to the BATS (Bennington Area Trail System) hiking trails through the campus were now posted as closed.
One resident said Monday his family was at first pleased that the campus property would be used, but the arrival of some 18 buses and other vehicles over the weekend prompted fears of a very large gathering from out of state that could pose a threat because of COVID-19. He said he was among those who contacted local officials because no one had released information on what precautions were being taken by the group.
In addition, he said, there have been periods of loud electronic music at night that have prompted some residents to call police.
Perlstein said the group previously obtained information on the requirements Vermont has imposed on visitors from areas with a higher COVID-19 infection rate than Vermont's, and on epidemic-related requirements for summer camps, such as having less than a 75-percent occupancy rate.
Prior to coming to Vermont, he said, "every child had a COVID test taken," and anyone with symptoms was not allowed to attend the three-week event. Each camper also will be tested once a week while in Vermont, Perlstein said, and temperatures are being taken.
In addition, he said, staff members completed a two-week quarantine prior to the camp.
While trips for the youth had been planned to various Vermont sites, "all of our trips for the summer have been cancelled," Perlstein said, and the children will remain on the 371-acre campus.
"But we are still so happy to be in beautiful Vermont," he said, adding, "A lot of these kids would not have this opportunity," if not for the non-for-profit organization.
Perlstein, whose group is now leasing the property, also has made an offer to purchase the former SVC campus. He said the long-range plan is "to partner with Bennington, with people going to our gym and our workout room and using the trails."
He said the group is willing to talk to people to work our arrangements for use of trails or campus facilities.
The group's offer to purchase the campus, and other pending activities related to the former college, was recently stayed by the court because the college corporation entered Chapter 7 bankruptcy on July 1. The Chapter 7 process typically leads to a final liquidation of assets including real estate, possibly through auctions.
Town officials said Monday they believe the camp gathering is in compliance with safety regulations, and the director understands the quarantine restrictions for youth camps and for visitors from other states.
Meanwhile, state Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling said in an email, "We are in communication with a variety of officials and local folks. The Agency of Commerce is actively working to ensure that they [the camp] are operating in compliance with state health guidance."
Ted Brady, Deputy Secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, said in an email Monday afternoon, that the agency "has provided the operator of a summer program on the campus of Southern Vermont College with the state’s guidance concerning summer camps ... The operator was familiar with the guidance and stated they were operating within that guidance. They specifically explained that all campers are meeting the required quarantine protocols.“
In an update on Wednesday, state officials said in an email that they believe the Orthodox Jewish camp for about 350 children is in compliance with all applicable safety and health regulation, including those pertaining to operation of a summer camp during the COVID-19 epidemic.
The occupancy rate in campus buildings, they said, is below the 75 percent level required under state guidelines.
The county's two Democratic state senators, Dick Sears and Brian Campion, said they contacted administration officials are hearing concerns from a number of Bennington residents.
They issued a joint statement Monday, saying, "We reached out to the offices of the governor, attorney general and the Department of Public Safety to make certain that the new tenants at Southern Vermont College are following the state's health guidelines and the governor's executive order on COVID. The state was not aware of the lease until we contacted them as all permits were provided by the town of Bennington."
Paul Dansereau, the town's building inspector, code enforcement and fire marshal, said he met with Perlstein July 1 on the campus and learned there were plans in place to comply with COVID-19 and other regulations.
An inspection of the buildings to be used during the event also was conducted, and conditional use permits were approved, pending work on a number of violations noted and a follow-up inspection.
Those violations included alarm or emergency lighting systems not working correctly; a need for smoke detectors or a replacement specific locations, an electrical outlet cover missing and a missing sprinkler head.
State Rep. Jim Carroll, D-Bennington, 2-2, who is also a town Select Board member, said Monday he had spoken to concerned residents and several officials and learned that, "to the best of our knowledge all of the inspections have been done," and the group "has done everything they should have done."
Perlstein made a point of saying the local officials he dealt with for permitting have been "very nice, and very efficient."
Some of the regulations "are tough but clear," he said.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien