Open Letter to Government Leaders

True North Climbing
14-75 Carl Hall Road
Toronto, ON, M3K 2B9
October 15, 2020

To:
Roman Baber, MPP, York Centre
Premier Doug Ford
Minister of Health Christine Elliott

Dear Government Leaders,

I am writing to ask for refinement of the rules regarding business closures, and to explain how my business has operated during the pandemic.

On Friday your government announced the closure of all gyms and indoor sports/recreation centres for the next 28 days, along with other measures intended to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. This has resulted in the second shutdown of my business. Before the pandemic I employed 6 people full-time (including myself) and 43 people part-time. That added up to approximately 15 full-time equivalents. We welcomed a few hundred visitors a day, engaging in a fun, social sport that is good for the body and mind.

I strongly support measures that are supported by data, including closing businesses that have been shown to be likely places where an outbreak might occur. I do not think my business should have been included, and would appreciate the opportunity to explain why.

I made the decision to shut down on my own on March 13th, a few days before the first government order was issued. I did so out of concern that the common touch points in my facility (the climbing holds) might be a source of transmission. Since then, we have learned that the virus is transmitted by air, and is very unlikely to spread by touching surfaces.

When I reopened my business on August 3rd, we adopted the following measures to keep our staff and customers as safe as possible:
•    Capacity limited to 40 climbers plus a handful of staff in a 12,000 square foot facility, with ceilings ranging from 25-36 feet high.
•    Introductory lessons limited to 2 people (previous limit was 8) to reduce interaction/contact
•    Rental equipment (climbing shoes and harnesses) are set aside for 3 days after each use
•    We have large loading bay doors that have been kept open when the weather allows, to further increase the amount of fresh air.
•    All visitors must check in and check out. We can produce complete contact tracing reports on request.
•    All visitors must complete a new, additional COVID-19 waiver that includes the usual health screening questions.
•    Everyone must wear a mask at all times, including when climbing. This is strictly enforced, and customers are told to leave if they will not comply.
•    No food is allowed in the facility.
•    Distancing is enforced for all who are not from the same household. This includes preventing climbers from using adjacent routes.
•    No spectators are allowed.
•    Many of our usual services are unavailable (e.g. day camp, birthday parties, group lessons)
•    Children under 13 are admitted only as part of our supervised programs. We are concerned about parents being able to ensure that their kids follow all safety protocols.
•    Climbing is limited to reserved 3-hour time slots, with no overlapping visits. This reduces the number of people in the space at one time, and limits how many people each visitor might interact with.
•    Sanitizer is provided throughout the facility, with direction to clean hands between climbs.
•    An outdoor sink is provided, with instructions to visitors to wash hands before entering.
•    Plexiglass barriers are installed at the front desk area.
•    Frequent cleaning is done at common touch points such as door handles, bathrooms.
•    A fogging machine is used to disinfect the walls & climbing holds each night.

I know that all of the other climbing centres in Ontario have also been implementing most of the procedures above. Note also that climbing is not an aerobic form of exercise compared to other activities, and so climbers are much less likely to be breathing heavily than someone on a treadmill or spin bike.

These measures cost many thousands of dollars to implement in terms of equipment, supplies and extra staff hours, and the limited capacity meant that in our best week while we were open again we collected about 30% of the revenue of the corresponding week last year. Overall in the 2+ months we were open since August our revenue was less than 20% compared to the previous year. I was able to recall all the full-time staff at full wages briefly, and almost half the part-time staff got some hours again. Now that we are closed again we are back to zero. Actually revenue will be less than zero, as I expect some customers will again demand refunds now for services we cannot deliver.

It is important to point out that during the 67 days we were open since August, there were no positive tests reported to us for anyone who has been at our facility.

Many of our customers have spoken up to support us, and express their concerns about this closure. Here are a few of their comments:

the gym has been the saving grace of my mental health for the past couple of years, and I desperately want to be able to come again when it becomes possible. True North has gone above and beyond with keeping people safe during this pandemic, we have not forgotten that the gym voluntarily closed before the government required it and was one of the last in Toronto to re-open. Everything I know about the science of transmission indicates that the gym’s measures are adequate and I’m doubtful that any transmission has taken place there, the only case studies where gyms had outbreaks were associated with unmasked classes that involved a fair bit of shouting. I’m very disappointed that the government is punishing businesses that worked so hard to adhere to the rules.

Today’s news hit me in the gut. I really feel for you and your incredible team having to face another closure. I have sincerely appreciated TN’s pandemic response thus far, from your fairness and flexibility for members to your clear communication to your implementation and maintenance of the new cleaning and distancing protocols.

Really sad to hear about it, hoping you guys and other climbing gyms can possibly connect with the ministry regarding the future. From my experience at true north, I have felt completely safe the entire time, much more than at many “essential services.” My understanding from friends who have been to regular gyms (like Goodlife) is that the procedures are not nearly as tight as you guys, and in my opinion, the risk is definitely there, but not really at climbing gyms. Everything you guys have done in the last couple months has been greatly appreciated, and while brief, it was a blast being back at true north

My climbing group and I share your disappointment. We appreciated the multiple safety measures you put in place and allowed us to feel comfortable and enjoy the climbing. The outdoor handwashing sink was an excellent invention.

I wanted to say that I thought you guys were running a great and very safe operation.

If only we could report to the government, how safe an environment you and others have created. So many people are doing what’s necessary and then others selfishly unmask, don’t maintain 6m distances and believe in conspiracy theories. I think it’s tragic you were all lumped into one set back

I thought I’d send this email to let you know how impressed I was with all the measures you put in place and with the staff. I think it is a shame that the shut down was done on an across the board basis, rather than in a more targeted manner. Your staff could not have done more to ensure they we were all able to climb in a safe manner. Well done and I look forward to returning as soon as we are allowed to.

The government of Quebec, in consultation with climbing gyms there, has allowed climbing gyms to remain open even in their “red zones”, with specific limitations in place.

I ask again that you reconsider the business closures, and instead of lumping all indoor sports and recreation centres together, define rules that will keep people safe. I suggest the following:
•    Masks must be worn by all at all times, including when working out
•    Capacity must be limited to no more than one person per 100 square feet of interior space. Distancing must be enforced.
•    Attendance by reservation only, in non-overlapping time slots, to reduce the number of people each person might be exposed to
•    Contact information must be collected for every person entering, including name, phone number, and the time the entered and exited
•    Hand washing/sanitation available/encouraged/required

I am certain that those coming to my facility have been kept safer than people at grocery stores, Costco or Home Depot, or in schools, churches, mosques and synagogues. There is a world of difference between how we have been operating, and those fitness facilities where outbreaks have occurred. Please refine the rules to keep people as safe as possible without crippling businesses that are not contributing to the spread of the virus.

Thank you for listening. I am available any time to discuss the above, or to show our facility and explain in more detail everything we have done to ensure safety.

Sincerely,

John Gross
Owner, True North Climbing
john.gross@truenorthclimbing.com