As revenue ramps up around the country, provinces have begun to release their vaccination passport policies. In Ontario, the question of vaccine passports became common with the Sept. 22 Covid-19 vaccine certificate release date. It will affect recreation.
True North Climbing became the first climbing gym in Ontario to enforce a vaccination mandate for all who climb within its walls. While this sort of policy will become commonplace around the province, True North currently stands as the only gym in Ontario to have made this leap.
The Toronto-based climbing facility has endured some of the most severe lockdown restrictions of any climbing gym across North America. Over the last 18 months, Toronto saw two prolonged lockdowns. The most recent closure only concluded on July 19 when increased vaccination rates and decreasing case counts allowed gym owners an opportunity to reopen their doors.
Despite the 400+ days of lockdown that defined climbing in Toronto’s last 19 months, Gross moved cautiously to open his doors. Under the current provincial policies, his facility cannot hold more than 50 per cent of its fire-code capacity. For True North, that would mean around 150 people. Gross has decided to stay well under that number for the sake of his climbers.
Today, True North keeps their capacity under 60, they enforce social distancing, and they ask all climbers to wear a mask. By provincial regulation, gym owners do not need to require masks of their patrons while they exercise. Despite this fact, all climbing gym owners in the province agreed that a mask mandate best suits their communities for the moment.
In Alberta, some climbing gyms have afforded mask-less climbing. With the rising Delta variant, this regulation has shifted back to a masked form of recreation. This Delta variant is part of what inspired Gross’s decision to enforce a vaccination policy. “The Delta variant has changed the pandemic,” Gross said. “It’s much more contagious, and it seems clear that it has become a pandemic of the unvaccinated.
“I think it reduces the risk of those in the gym if we make sure that everyone is vaccinated. It doesn’t eliminate the risk, but requiring vaccination, I believe, reduces the risk to those in the gym substantially. I also hope it provides incentive for people to get vaccinated. When Quebec announced its policy, the vaccination rate doubled overnight.”
After Quebec and BC announced their plans, Gross began to feel more comfortable in his position. This vaccine policy was something the Toronto gym owner wanted to do for some time, but he also did not want to break any laws. After seeing Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment make a similar vaccination policy, Gross was convinced. This is the way forward.
Although vaccine passports will become commonplace for most recreational activities in Ontario, taking this first step ahead of government regulation came with consequences. The facility experienced a DDOS website attack that briefly shut down the gym’s website.
Some other consequences of the decision came from people outside of True North’s climbing community. Anti-vaccination-allied individuals have made nasty comments and sent emails describing their frustration with the announcement. These have stopped for the most part.
Furthermore, this policy eliminates the opportunity for parents to bring their younger, unvaccinated children into the facility. True North already restricted access to children under 13 years of age to better enforce their current restrictions. Gross feels their loss.
“It hurts. We love having kids in the gym, we know they love to climb, we know their parents need an activity for them, but we felt we weren’t ready for that. We have challenges enforcing our current policies with adults in terms of keeping masks on at all times and keeping a distance from others. It’s a precaution to maintain order, and it’s all part of keeping people safe.”
This decision removes one of the highest-margin businesses from True North’s product line, but it allows his staff and members to feel safer in the gym. Although the gym loses revenue without their kid programs, Gross said that his business is slowly recovering. To that effect, Gross also mentioned that the double vaccination announcement has not affected True North’s continuous revenue growth since its opening.
Such a detail allows gym owners to move toward their vaccination passports with ease in the coming weeks. Naturally, Ontario does not yet have official vaccination passports. As such, Gross and his team have had to go by an honour policy instead. When a climber books a session online, a small section asks the patron to attest that they have received both vaccinations. While a person can lie, this faith in community in response to vaccine-based restrictions shows the good will of Gross and his team. They simply wish to make a safe space.
As Ontario prepares for kids to return to classrooms, Gross prepares for another bump in Covid rates among unvaccinated youth. It remains unclear what will occur, but Gross decided he will be ready. His contractor will upgrade the True North HVAC filters to MERV-13 to filter out the water droplets the virus attaches to.
These policies, precautions and considerations have earned Gross respect from his community and those outside. “I have had a lot of supportive messages from customers. I have seen comments of people saying that they weren’t comfortable climbing, and now they will be.”
This thought provides hope that a new-normal will see increased capacities and an even more cohesive climbing community.