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Andrew Coffey and the Future of Climbing Gyms

The Hive's owner, Andrew Coffey, discusses the potential future of climbing gyms in relation to the pandemic.

This past weekend we sat down with The Hive’s owner Andrew Coffey to discuss the developing situation regarding gym closures, openings, and related topics. So far, things are still a bit unclear, but there are few things we know for sure and there are a few things that we will still have to explore.

In British Columbia, the provincial government has issued an order prohibiting gatherings of 50 or more people in a space. There are exceptions to this rule, for example malls, and more information regarding the order can be found here.

For gyms like the Grand Wall Bouldering Co-op, this issue may not be as large a problem as one might presume. The space is small and, even pre-COVID, infrequently entertains a great number of climbers. For a facility like Coffey’s The Hive, however, the situation is different. In fact, due to choke points and general gym flow, the situation will likely be different for each facility.

For many climbers the question of if or how climbing gyms might change as a result of the pandemic is a big one. Coffey notes, “We occupy a really interesting space as a climbing gym. We provide the fitness a normal gym would provide and [a place] where people want to hang out and be together. I would like to believe that we will go back to that social scene that climbing gyms have built.” He also notes that this might be difficult.

B.C. has already stated that restrictions regarding large gatherings will continue until we have a vaccine or herd immunity. As a result, Coffey said, “Until that restriction is lifted, things will be very different and what we have come to expect from climbing gyms will have to change and that may be for longer than we would like it to last. We’re all going to have to adapt and change to make this work.”

To try and mitigate the struggle for climbers locked at home, Coffey, and gym owners across the country, have worked to exercise community involvement via social media. This has become increasingly difficult to manage, however, as owners have had to cut every expense they can to make it through this pandemic.

Fortunately, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Owners across the country have joined a task force with Climbing Escalade Canada (CEC) to figure out what should be done. Coffey has participated in this task force as well as the B.C. specific task force that was built for a provincially specific, but similarly focused, effort.

Coffey commends the efforts taken place by B.C. gym owners. He said, “The province, as a whole, did a really good job of closing down without making it mandatory. In most jurisdictions, we are under voluntary closure, so our Vancouver gym and our North Shore gym are closed just because we thought it was the right thing to do not because anyone told us to.” With time, various municipalities issued orders that specifically addressed various gyms asking them to close, such as Coffey’s Surry located facility, but many gyms are still closed voluntarily. This is a big deal, as it means that these facilities will not have to await a second order to open.

Gyms in the province will likely not be able to open until phase three at the earliest. That said, they are working to be included in the sports and recreation portion of the phase two re-opening campaign. The motivation for this action stems from a fear that gyms may have to close again if they open in phase three and the virus bounces back. This is because the province could return to phase two status. In either case, facilities will likely open with phase three at the earliest.

Another question pressed by climbers relates to chalk, and the possible transmission of COVID-19 via surfaces. Coffey said, “I think this has been the hot button topic for gyms around the world.” Coffey went on to say that all discussion of this topic should be prefaced with the fact that opening gyms during and after the pandemic will require a team effort.

Coffey said, “[Gyms] will do as much as they can, I know we will do as much as we possibly can to mitigate the risks, but the risks of COVID are very different [from conventional climbing risk] and the things I look to for guidance are the health authorities. Any decision a gym makes should be as a result of what their local governments are saying.”

The gyms will require the help of the community in a real way. He said, “We need the community to be honest about how they are feeling and to stay home if they’re sick. I think that if people [do] stay home when they’re sick, wash their hands before they climb, if people sanitize their hands well, and cover [their] sneezes, I feel pretty confident that the transfer form surfaces would be the same that you would experience at the grocery store.”

That said, Coffey goes on to mention that, “The risk is real. Climbing gyms have the advantage of being a bigger open space. There aren’t tons of people jammed together in a tiny little room doing something six-inches away from another mat, and we can manage the capacity to allow for extra space.”

In regard to chalk specifically, Coffey discussed how the Hive’s Vancouver location overhauled their ventilation recently, and that climbing gyms have increased ventilation, generally, compared to other fitness areas. There has been discussion regarding liquid chalk as an alternative to regular chalk in facilities as a solution, as well. Coffey said, “I think more research needs to be done on whether liquid chalk can work as an antimicrobial, anti-viral, but if this is the time to move to liquid chalk only, I know a lot of gym owners would be happy about that.

In terms of gyms opening, Coffey said there are two main options. “One is to not make any changes and wait for all of this to blow over to some semblance of normal and hope we can go back to what we were used to do, which is not really an option at all. The second option is to adapt and change.”

All gym owners would ideally like to open their facilities, but only if they can do so safely, equitably and reasonably. Coffey discussed how gym owners may have to move to a booking-based system, something that is common among yoga studios and spin classes, going forward. We may have to move away from the community focused aspects of the facility for a little while as we await a vaccine and for things to return to a more normal way of being.

Things will be weird for a little while, and we, as a community, need to step up and help. Though we all want our gyms to open, we must do so safely. Coffey said, “What would be helpful for us from our community would be understanding and patience while we figure out how to move forward through this new territory.”

As gym owners are working tirelessly to return that sport which we all love most, this is, in many ways, only a little thing to ask. Let us thank owners like Coffery for taking the risk so seriously as they work to keep us safe.

Featured photo by Ivan Luo.