As most Colorado climbing gym owners waited anxiously for state guidelines regarding how and when they can reopen, Whetstone Climbing in Fort Collins welcomed back members this week thanks to a variance that the state granted for gyms in Larimer County.
Owner Darrell Gschwendtner imposed occupancy limits twice as stringent as what was required in the variance. There was signage relating to the coronavirus, along with increased sanitizer stations and requirements for face coverings.
Gschwendtner also updated the liability waiver that members sign to include a paragraph relating to the threat of the coronavirus. It included a sentence stipulating that members “assume the risk of becoming a carrier or becoming sick from any illness, virus, bacterial infection or other disease while at Whetstone.” All members must sign the updated waiver.
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But despite all those precautions and more, there’s one thing Gschwendtner and other climbing gym owners say they can’t do: Clean every hold, rope and climbing surface on every route after every climber. Cleaning the equipment after every use might work in weight rooms, but not climbing gyms.
“We’d be out of business in one day,” Gschwendtner said. “We’d have labor climbing right behind a climber to clean holds.”
As climbing gyms around Colorado prepare to reopen, owners concede there is no way to keep routes free of germs, given the close contact climbers have with the walls they climb. That conclusion is backed by the nation’s largest professional trade association for the indoor climbing industry, the Boulder-based Climbing Wall Association.
“It is not possible to disinfect a climbing wall and all climbing holds on that climbing wall,” said Laura Allured, the association’s marketing and communications manager. “The focus is on reducing risk and enforcing good hygiene principles with climbers.”
Because most climbers understand and accept that, Whetstone welcomed a lot of happy climbers when it reopened on Monday.
“The response has been fantastic,” Gschwendtner said. “Everyone is very happy to be back in the climbing gym. They’ve missed it quite a bit. There are some people who are going to wait it out for a little bit longer, but the majority of folks are very happy to be in.”
According to the variance, Whetstone was required to limit occupancy to 30% of capacity. Gschwendtner decided to cap occupancy at half of that.
“Right now, we’re allowing 75 people in here at one time, maximum,” Gschwendtner said. “That is roughly 400 square feet per person.”
People in the climbing industry tend to avoid talking in terms of safety, because it is an inherently risky sport. They prefer to talk about “mitigating risks,” and coronavirus has added another to consider.
“The common approach that people are taking is to encourage their climbers to be smart about their choices,” Allured said. “Don’t come to the gym if you’re showing symptoms. Practice good hygiene. If you touch a surface you’re not sure of, don’t touch your face until you can wash your hands or disinfect. People are putting an emphasis on providing hand sanitizers (and) hand-washing stations.”
When weighing risk mitigation regarding coronavirus, the owner of EVO Rock + Fitness in Louisville has the benefit of medical training. Clint Dillard is a physician assistant, and his wife is an intensive care nurse treating patients with COVID-19 at UCHealth.
“The medical side of me obviously wants to be as cautious and careful as I can possibly be,” Dillard said this week while waiting for the state to announce guidelines that would allow him to reopen. “At this point, I do believe we know the science well enough, and we can offer a space that will be fine. We just need to be allowed to open at this point. It’s a unique environment. There’s not really any other sport where you’re interacting so intimately with the surface. And the whole point of gyms is to bring people together, not just a fitness kind of thing. It’s a community center, a gathering place. Gyms in a pandemic, it’s a really big challenge.”
Dillard was a week away from opening a second location, a “boutique bouldering gym” in Golden, when Safe at Home measures imposed by the state shut down gyms. Jason Haas had just opened a new gym in Broomfield called G1 Climbing + Fitness. It had been open a month when Gov. Jared Polis’ order was issued, almost to the day, and the interruption of his dream to start a new business has been heartbreaking.
“Very much so,” said Haas, a former schoolteacher. “It’s not been an easy road to go down. We’ve been closed three times longer than we were open. I have everything on the line. My house, everything is wrapped into this thing.”
Haas organized Zoom meetings with other climbing-gym owners around the state to share ideas for best practices while they waited for specific guidelines from the state about reopening.
“It’s been good to commiserate with other people in a similar difficult situation,” Haas said.
Meanwhile, there has been a surge in orders for home climbing walls. Christina Frain, a spokeswoman for Eldorado Climbing Walls in Louisville, declined to give specific numbers but said the number of orders the company received in May was more than twice the number in May of 2019. The company has hired more workers to accommodate the increase in demand.
“We’re super glad to be able to provide something that people clearly need,” Frain said. “We are 100 percent rooting for all of the gyms to get back open. We don’t want to sound like we’re making bank because of a pandemic. We genuinely miss our climbing gyms and are so grateful that, state by state, they’re beginning to reopen.”
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