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Climbing Gyms Across Canada Battling Through COVID-19

We speak with two climbing gym owners with locations across Canada, about the challenges of operating and reopening facilities in COVID-19

As we approach a year of quarantine procedures due to the pandemic, many parts of Canada sit at the same level of emergency, if not worse, than when we first went into lockdown in March of 2020. Like so many places around the world, the pandemic has affected countless businesses in Canada and many of them have had to close their doors permanently. Climbing gyms have been no exception to these struggles. Since March 18th, 2020, every climbing gym across Canada has experienced some form of closure for an extended period of time, with provinces like Ontario and Manitoba experiencing multiple closures. I spoke with climbing gym owners Matthew Languay and Andrew Coffey about the challenges they have faced operating during the pandemic and next steps looking forward as the world fights to emerge from beneath the virus.

Matthew Languay is the owner and manager of Basecamp Climbing in Toronto, Ontario. Basecamp has two locations, Bloor St in Korea Town, and Queen West on Spadina. Matt opened the Basecamp Bloor location in 2016 and opened the Queen West location in the summer of 2020 during the pandemic. I asked Matt what it’s been like for him operating two gyms during a pandemic? He told me it’s been a super rough year, having both gyms completely shut down due to COVID-19. When can we reopen? What is reopening going to look like? Will climbers be hesitant to re-enter the facility with big crowd gatherings? These are all questions Matt has been trying to answer.

Climber tying in at Basecamp Climbing’s Neon Nights competition

Although things have been very financially tight for Matt trying to manage both gyms during the shutdown, he cites the government’s financial aid program as one of the main reasons Basecamp survived. For the first six months, Matt was solely responsible for providing rent even with closures. However, since then, he has received a 90% subsidy on rent, giving the gym a huge boost. As far as reopening is concerned, Matt says he hasn’t heard anything from the government but said “we are ready to go as soon as we hear”. As parts of Ontario start to open up, he predicted a possibility of reopening in late spring or early summer. He also added, “having a light at the end of the tunnel” has been really encouraging to spirits.

Andrew Coffey’s experience of COVID-19 has been a bit different, though not without its struggles as well. Coffey is the owner of The Hive climbing gyms, which now span 5 different facilities, four of which are in BC and the final in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Andrew Opened his first gym seven years ago in the heart of Vancouver, opening two more gyms in the coming years in North Shore and Surrey, and finally, opening the latest two gyms in Port Coquitlam and Winnipeg during the pandemic in mid to late 2020. Fortunately, due to province regulations for COVID-19 in BC, all four gyms there remain open, while Manitoba’s regulations have forced the Winnipeg location to remain closed.

Even though The Hive has four of their five locations currently in operation, Coffey says that all of their gyms have taken a huge hit. The facilities that are open are operating at around 25% capacity, but have taken all the necessary safety precautions to make sure the spaces are as safely operational for climbers as possible. One major setback that Coffey experienced during the pandemic is in regards to subsidies from the government. Because The Hive’s two newest facilities weren’t operational in the previous fiscal year before COVID-19 in 2020, those two locations did not qualify for financial support from the government. The other locations have been receiving a 75% subsidy for rent, less than Toronto gyms’ 90% because BC gyms are still operational.

I asked Andrew about reopening plans for the gyms. He told me that he has not heard anything about reopening for the Winnipeg location and is still waiting to hear week to week. In the meantime, the BC locations will continue to operate at 25% capacity. Coffey made some predictions as to the future of his gyms and climbing gyms in general. He sees the use of masks, social distancing, and handwashing continuing at least until the majority of the Canadian population is vaccinated, if not longer after that. Coffey hopes to see things get back to normal by the winter of next year. Both Coffey and Languay say that out of all the changes as a result of COVID-19, the online booking and reservation system might be the change that sticks long term. Citing that it has fundamentally changed gym operations, provide better service to customers, and allows them to more easily manage capacity in the facilities. Both owners expressed how excited they are to have their facilities return to normal and welcome back the amazing climbing communities the gyms have cultivated.