How and when will climbing walls re-open?
- Thursday 7th May 2020
Keith Sharples investigates...
Now the UK, like many countries, is past the pandemic peak attention is inevitably shifting towards lifting lockdown restrictions and getting back to some semblance of ‘normal’. How and when will climbing walls be able to open again is the question vexing many and whilst reopening protocols are under development operators are wrestling with revised staffing requirements, budgets and the impact to the bottom line.
With the notable exception of Sweden, most countries introduced ‘stay at home’/lockdown measures as the pandemic worsened and many non-essential businesses – gyms and climbing walls included – were forced to close. The prevailing view was that the spread of the contagion simply had to be stymied; ‘R’, the much-discussed rate of infection, had to be reduced as quickly as possible and then kept well down in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic to avoid a possible second, third or indeed multiple infection spikes.
Week commencing March 16th was when things really kicked-off here in the UK when the Government advised against unnecessary travel. Business, including climbing walls, start to close as owners/operators reacted to the worsening situation. On March 23rd the Government ordered lockdown and life took on an entirely new outlook; the doors of any climbing walls still open slammed shut.
With climbing walls and outside crags all closed, and likely to remain so for some considerable time, climbers turned to home training whether that was fingerboard or circuit-style workouts. The lucky or fanatics amongst us simply switched on the cellar lights and went underground – others started building home climbing walls with great fervour.
We are now seven weeks (and counting) since lockdown in the UK. The Government will decide at some point that the pandemic threat has diminished sufficiently and that leisure centres and climbing walls can reopen. Exactly when they will be allowed to reopen however is unknown the present time. In the meanwhile considerable time and energy has been spent on the ‘how can walls reopen’ dilemma. Climbing wall associations – in conjunction with other leisure industries – are working very hard behind the scenes developing reopening protocols such that when the time is right and that the facilities can reopen.
Make no mistake, climbing walls will look and feel very different from their pre-coronavirus days and the chances are that the protocols will need to remain in place for a considerable time. Demand may change, instructional and scholastic groups will have dried up and Tarquin’s birthday party won’t be happening either so staffing will need to change in step with demand. All walls will be operating in demanding trading conditions; some walls may well find it very difficult.
First we look at how the walls can reopen, then we consider when they might be allowed to reopen and then finally what the ‘new normal’ will mean to the wall operators, the staff and the bottom line.
An unofficial working group comprising a number of interested parties (Christian Popien, Matthias Polig, Christian Benk, Florian Schiffer, Ged MacDomhnaill, Peter Zeidelhack, Maria Hilber and Cody Roth included) has produced a paper titled European Strategy proposal for Covid-19 Risk Mitigation in Climbing Gyms. Click here for the third version of this paper – dated April 24th, 2020 – published on Vertical Life. Their objective was simple; ‘The goal must be drawing up a strategic plan and workable solutions that will make it easier for the national authorities to evaluate the reopening of climbing gyms.’
They identified three crucial areas; occupancy flow and capacity management, hygiene measures and finally political dialogue, lobbying and communication.
Here in the UK the ABC (Association of British Climbing Walls) – alongside other Outdoor Industries Associations and UK Active – have been working hard on our behalf. Under the chairmanship of Rich Emerson, the ABC has set up five separate working groups to examine the disparate aspects for reopening. The strategy being developed by the ABC is also based on three elements: hygiene measures, capacity management and social distancing.
It is recognised that no one-size solution fits all and that individual climbing walls will need to consider their own specific needs and requirements etc., a point which Rich was keen to stress when he spoke to Climber: “The ABC will be producing a set of guidelines for walls to reopen, this will include measures to protect both customers and staff. Obviously each location will be physically different so the guidelines will have to be adapted but they will be based on the requirements from Public Health.”
In order to share the work, planning and learning on this, thus far representatives from the CWA, IFSC, ABC, DAV, CEC, FASI, and several leading national federations met on April 27th. It is planned that this working group will meet weekly for an indefinite period of time as each organisation works to deliver information in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Nothing is yet ‘fixed in stone’ as it were and different countries are likely to set different requirements. However, it will be from the broad collection of protocols that individual walls in different countries will need to develop their own measures.
The hygiene protocols which are likely to be brought in relate to both customers and staff alike; the central objective is to prevent the transmission of Covid-19. The spread of Covid-19 is known to be more prevalent during close and unprotected contact between people typically when primary droplets become airborne when coughing or sneezing occurs. Wearing mouth protection is known to help reduce the spread of aerosol containing coronavirus whilst face masks helps to reduce absorption by others.
Crucially for the reopening of climbing walls, research in Germany by Professor Hendrik Streeck, Director of the Institute of Virology at the University Hospital in Bonn was unable to prove or create a surface contact infection or transmission of coronavirus. Whilst this is being kept under review, and possible countermeasures may be needed downstream if this changes, this is especially good news for climbing walls. The measures currently being proposed and discussed therefore are aimed at reducing transmission between people i.e. between wall visitors and staff.
It’s clearly recognised that visitors must take personal responsibility here; operators, however, will need to encourage and enforce measures.
- Information Boards: in centres are planned.
- Customer Health: anyone feeling ill should not go climbing indoors. Checks may be undertaken and anyone with temperatures or other symptoms will be refused entry.
- Distancing: 2 metres distance should be maintained during check-in/out and whilst at the centre. It is possible that teams (a max of two climbers) on a lead wall or bouldering may be allowed a relaxation during tie-in, checking or when spotting.
- Hand Hygiene: visitors will need to wash their hands when entering the wall and dry them using paper towels after which they should use alcohol-based hand disinfection before climbing. Similar cleaning should be done before and after breaks in climbing and when leaving climbing walls.
- Liquid or Loose Chalk: the use of liquid chalk maybe encouraged depending upon the alcohol content. Liquid chalk can have as little as 25-40% alcohol content but to be effective this will need to be considerably higher and some manufacturers have announced plans to increase the alcohol to 80%. A study by North America based Climbing Wall Association (CWA) into the use of liquid chalk is ongoing.
- Masks: as well as social distancing, mouth/nose masks may be needed when others are nearby. The stance of such face masks varies in different countries; currently, the UK Government are asking people to wear a mask on public transport only. If this advice changes then the ABC’s advice will be changed to reflect the changes.
- Coughing and Sneezing: should be done into a bent elbow or cloth which is then disposed of.
- Drinks/Water Bottles: will need to be kept in rucksacs and stowed away after use. Refilling in the gym’s water taps will not be allowed.
Staff-focused to Protect Visitors
Wall operators will introduce measures to protect customers:
- Cleaning of Surfaces: where possible surfaces will be cleaned with suitable agents – climbing holds will be excluded from this.
- Reduced Visitor Density in Changing Rooms: one person per 4m2 is the guideline.
- Showers: will remain closed.
- Disinfectant Dispensers: will be placed in the wall for use by all.
- Masks: see above.
- Ventilation: walls should be well ventilated – cross-ventilation for 10 minutes every hour would be ideal.
- Hygiene and Staff Protection: staff provision will be made separate to customers.
- Other Measures: a so-called health passport or the use of Contact Tracing App may be mandatory.
The principal objective here is to limit the maximum number of visitors to climbing walls within established safe limits as customers arrive at, climb and use the facilities (toilets etc.) at the wall and throughout the day. The ABC believes it is likely that the Government will specify the capacity of a facility in terms of ‘x’ m2 per person. Measures being discussed include:
- Advance online bookings: may be necessary not only to spread the load but have cashless and contactless payment
- Avoiding queues; this is particularly relevant at check-ins.
- Time slots: customers may be restricted to 90/120 minutes. Colour banding may be issued.
- Route Closures: alternative routes may be closed to ensure social distancing. These would be alternated on a daily/regular basis.
- Bouldering Areas Delineated: sections of the bouldering walls may be taped off into separate areas.
Social distancing, the underlying principle behind reducing the spread of the Covid-19, will remain in place and so too will the need to maintain the universally accepted 2m distance between people of different households.
When can climbing walls reopen?
Having delved deep into the range of possible reopening protocols which are being considered we inevitably need to return to the crucial question; when will climbing walls be able to reopen? The latest Covid-19 data and news reports show that here in the UK we have been hit later and harder by the pandemic than in many other EU countries. Whilst the UK lockdown has been far less stringent than in Europe; Italy and Spain, for example, have been much tougher, it could be the case that the UK Government will take longer to lift lockdown measures.
In contrast to the somewhat down-beat and gloomy position which prevails at the present here in the UK the situation in Europe and across the pond in the USA is, in places, considerably more upbeat. Starting first with the USA, and perhaps riding on the back of the general push-back against the lockdown, the first climbing wall reopened in the States nearly two weeks ago. Treadstone, Columbus, Georgia (see their Facebook page here…) have been back in the game since April 24th at which time they posted: “We are among the first – if not THE first – of climbing gyms in the country or the world to reopen after the Covid crisis began.” Seemingly it was too much of an opportunity to little pass without a humble brag: “Climbing Business Journal even interviewed us for a story they published yesterday, and we are making worldwide news with it.” They were however at pains to point out that hygiene was top of their list: “We are taking all reasonable measures to maintain a reasonably safe space here. I believe we are also the cleanest climbing gym in the world today.”
The situation in some parts of Europe is easing also. As we reported earlier this week outdoor climbing started again in late April in both the Czech Republic and in Austria. Climbing walls in both those countries are also opening again. The outdoor mega facility at Kletterzentrum Imst posted at the beginning of May (click here ) that it was reopen – albeit with social distancing of 2m and a maximum number of 44 climbers.
Let us return to the ‘when will the walls reopen’ here in the UK then. The Government are legally committed to reviewing the lockdown this week (May 7th) and are planning to make an announcement on Sunday of this coming weekend about the ongoing restrictions. Just how far and what restrictions they lift will depend on their assessment of where the UK is in regards to the so-called five lockdown tests. Whilst it seems possible, and the latest news reports fuel speculation on this, that some restrictions will be eased starting next week. It appears highly unlikely, however, that the full lockdown restrictions will end.
For many climbers – especially those living in the south-east and/or remote from the main outdoor climbing areas – visits to the climbing wall is a central strand of their climbing lives. Whilst climbing walls themselves foster a real community spirit the unbridled reality, however, is that the leisure industry and climbing walls per se are neither nowhere near the top of the consideration list for the Government, nor their advisors, plus they are places were groups of people gather in close proximity. As such climbing walls are likely to amongst the last facilities to reopen despite stringent measures being in place.
In contrast, the Irish Government have already set out a detailed roadmap (click here for this…) for lifting restrictions and reopening various venues; currently, they have set August 10th as the date at which gyms et al can reopen.
Climber has taken soundings around the wall operators and whilst there is hope that climbing walls in the UK can reopen sooner than the Irish Government have scheduled the situation is far from clear and that might not be the case. John Dunne from the Climbing Centre Group, for example, told Climber “I’m optimistic that walls will reopen by early autumn but only time will tell.” Rich from the ABC is at pains to point out also that the reopening dates might differ between Scotland, Wales and England also.
The latest reports emerging suggest that Westminster might, as early as next week, lift the ‘stay at home’ advice. Relaxing this, and hence allowing exercising in the countryside, could mean that outside climbing is back on the cards again in the near future. Whilst the resumption of outside climbing is looking like an increasing possibility, the reopening of climbing walls is eagerly awaited by many and hopefully, walls can reopen sooner rather than later.
How long the reopening protocols will have to remain in place before trading can return to ‘normal’ is, at this stage, pure speculation. Likewise, the impact on the financial position of many climbing walls is equally hard to evaluate. Dave Douglas from Awesome Walls summed this up: “What is for sure we won’t be back to full strength and normality for quite some time after opening.”
As outlined, the capacity reductions and stringent social distancing measures are specifically targeted to reduce visitor numbers. Instructional groups or birthday parties at centres – the bread and butter of many climbing walls – will have evaporated overnight; some speculate that this could well take several months to return. The need for instructors will similarly be reduced. Dave Douglas again: “The hours at the climbing walls that were there pre-Covid won’t be there when we reopen.”
Rich Emerson from the ABC fleshed out a little of thoughts within the industry telling Climber: “Most walls will have negotiated their leases and finance arrangements, these are often the biggest single cost items after staffing. How these change with the ending of the lockdown will be down to each negotiation. It's obviously in landlords and finance companies interests to have viable businesses as we come out of all this so we hope that they will be responsible with the way they negotiate. The pressure walls will be under when we reopen is incredibly difficult to predict. Will the customers come back? What impact will the capacity restrictions have? Will a second spike mean we have to close again? How long will it be before the restrictions end? It's this uncertainty that makes any kind of planning very difficult. We are working with UK Active who represent the gym and fitness industry. They are lobbying for flexible, ongoing support. We think that the government has to provide this.”
In short, climbing walls are facing unprecedented times. Prudent wall operators will already have revised budgets in place projecting reduced incomes and be planning accordingly. Undoubtedly, the more established climbing walls are likely to have higher reserves, fewer overheads and hence stronger balance sheets and should, therefore, be better placed to weather the storm. Not all, however, might be so lucky – especially those walls which are smaller or have just opened or those that face high lease repayments on both buildings and the climbing walls themselves. Dave Douglas believes the bottom line will be impacted for quite some time: "ALL climbing walls are at the mercy of our customers when we reopen. Low footfall will decide the fate of many walls. At the moment we have very low overheads while closed but once open we will be paying full dollar again for everything. It might take at least six months if not a year before we can get to a breakeven situation for trading."
Reopening will the first step back to normal – but it might well be a long and bumpy road for many a sentiment which John Dunne echoed: “Climbing walls are a great business to be in and they will come back but the next 12 months will be challenging but with support from staff and users we’ll hopefully get there.”
Let’s hope so!