Editors Note: Climbing gyms are a great opportunity for those who rock climb, alpine climb and or mountaineer to hone their skills, practice technique, gain strength and stay in climbing shape during winter or shoulder seasons. They hold a prominent place for those who are outdoor rock climbers, boulderers as well as gym climbers. Whether you agree or disagree with current Covid restrictions, read the article below for a view on the scientific data of why climbing gyms should reopen.
Climbing gyms statewide are in a dire situation, if they cannot reopen within the next month, some will close for good in Washington State.
Why the Climbing Gym Poses Lower Risk of SARS-CoV-2 Transmission Than You May Think
by Stewart Hoover, Mark Shipman M.D., & ThanhVan Tran M.D.
Gyms have been a punching bag during the COVID 19 pandemic. There has been a persistent idea that when COVID 19 cases go up, gyms need to shut down, because they are an obvious source of transmissions and COVID 19 “clusters.” But does the actual data and science support this? The short answer: no.
When the pandemic first exploded in February and March of 2020, science and data on transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus were nascent. (Consider that the CDC, WHO and experts like Dr. Fauci did not recommend the wearing of masks until several months into the pandemic.) The virus clearly was spread through human interaction, so it was reasonable to take emergency actions to shut down all non-essential businesses and activities to slow the spread and not overwhelm our hospitals. It was also reasonable to suspect that gyms had the potential to be hot beds of transmission, because patrons sometimes densely populate spaces, breath hard, and touch multiple surfaces.
Several months later when gyms were allowed to start reopening, more was known. A consensus regarding the SAR-CoV-2 virus was more robust. It was widely accepted by relevant experts that most transmissions of the virus take place indoors, when people are not wearing masks, and in areas of poor or no circulation; that the virus is inherently unstable and its ability to infect others diminishes the longer it is outside the body; that the virus survives longest in warm, moist, stagnant space; that the longer you are in proximity with someone infected, the higher the risk; that the risk of transmission outdoors is greatly reduced because the outdoors typically isn’t warm and moist and has air movement and wind; and that the risk of transmission indoors can be dramatically reduced by the wearing of masks, distancing (decreasing density), and having good air circulation.
So, gyms altered operations to protect their customers based on what was known and to comply with CDC and state guidelines. Masks were required. Frequent handwashing and use of hand sanitizers were required. Capacity was greatly reduced. Locker rooms and showers were closed. Common areas and frequently touched surfaces were cleaned incessantly. Members and guests were screened for COVID 19 symptoms and advised not to come to the gym if they were feeling sick in any way. Temperatures were lowered. Most gyms already had air circulation systems far better than homes and offices, but if there were ways to increase air circulation and quality, many employed them.
This was the back drop when COVID 19 cases surged in November 2020, and gyms were one of the very few categories of businesses in Washington singled out for total closure. Indeed, there was a lot more information available regarding where transmissions were occurring than in March 2020. State and local health departments had been contact tracing COVID 19 cases and identifying which activities and locations were associated with outbreaks or clusters. In the case of indoor climbing facilities, the Climbing Wall Association had been compiling data on from gyms across all 50 states.
Conspicuously absent from the data was an indication that gyms were a driver of COVID 19 outbreaks or clusters.
Perhaps nowhere was the lack of evidence implicating gyms in transmission of SARS-CoV-2 hammered home more than in New York state. In November, after initially suggesting gyms were a significant source of transmissions and would be required to close as a result of surging cases, Governor Cuomo boldly admitted his error and abruptly reversed course. He explained:
“Gyms are now one of the lowest known drivers of [COVID] clusters.”
“We have more data than any other state . . . we have actual facts we can base our decisions upon.”
New York’s data is consistent with data from other states that have been compiling facts. Data from Washington, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, D.C., and Michigan reflects almost no cases or clusters tracing back to gyms, and zero cases tracing back to indoor climbing facilities.
But is this just the result of lack of good reporting and contact tracing? Or is something else going on?
The science of healthy air circulation goes a long way in explaining the astounding lack of cases emanating from gyms. Dr. Joseph Allen from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public health is one of the leading experts in the world on indoor air safety. According to Dr. Allen, having good indoor air circulation is a key component to reducing risk of exposure. It is a simple concept: air movement disperses contaminated droplets and air that could otherwise linger in the space between people. The bigger, dryer and cooler the space that the virus is dispersed into (think outdoors), the lower the risk. Dr. Allen explains that, if there is good circulation of healthy air in the spaces between people, everybody is wearing masks and keeping a minimum of six feet form one another, then the risk of transmission can be reduced by 98 to 99 percent.
Dr. Allen considers optimal systems to be those that can turn over the volume of air in an indoor space 4 to 6 times an hour with air from outside or air circulated through filters with a rating of merv 13. In terms of the volume of air circulated per person in a space, he recommends that systems be able to circulate 30 cubic feet of air per minute (cfm) per person. To connect these recommendations to the real world, consider that the average house circulates its air once every two hours. The minimum standard for schools is 3 times per hour, but Dr. Allen says most schools are in the range of 1 to 1.5 times per hour.
Circle back to gyms and the Riverfront Rock Gym specifically as an example. The climbing takes place in a big, open, box-like building with a volume of air in excess of 250,000 cubic feet. It has a massive HVAC system dedicated to just that building. It pulls air from outside and circulates the entire volume of air almost 6 times an hour in the winter. That is 12 times faster than your average house. Plus, the air circulation can be supercharged by opening the large garage doors and revving up the powerful jet fans. Combine this monumental amount of air circulation with the facts that:
• Everybody is masked (climbing is a low cardio output so we can mask 100% of the time);
• Patrons easily maintain the minimum recommended distancing, even at modestly reduced capacity;
• Cfm per person is many, many times greater than the recommended 30 cfm due to the vast volume of air in proportion to the number of people in the building (if a building had the same footprint, the same 6 times an hour air turnover, but 10 foot instead of 50 foot ceilings, the safe target cfm per person capacity would be approximately 5 time less.);
• Climbers are constantly moving locations and not in prolonged proximity to others; and
• The perceived risk from multiple persons touching the same surfaces never materialized, probably because it was severely mitigated by the use of masks (people less likely to exchange secretions between their face, hands and surfaces), frequent hand washing and use of sanitizer, cooler temperatures, and the use of chalk, which studies show kills the inherently unstable virus.
According to Dr. Allen, we should expect these safety enhancing characteristics and practices to result in a 98 to 99 percent of reduction of transmission. This expectation dovetails snuggly with the real world absence of cases associated with climbing gyms. We used the Riverfront Rock Gym as an example, because we know and have verified the numbers with our HVAC engineer; but it is probably fairly representative of most climbing gyms because of common design, space, engineering and code requirements. Local Wenatchee fitness gyms like Cross Sport and Worx are probably similarly situated in terms of air circulation.
Bottom line: the science and data demonstrate that your climbing gym and fitness gym are safer than you may have thought or been led to believe. It is time to start thinking about risky human behaviors and unhealthy indoor air spaces as the root cause of the vast majority of transmissions rather than demonizing particular activities that can check all the boxes for increasing safety and have a proven track record of not driving transmissions. This doesn’t mean it is okay to let your guard down at the gym. Quite the opposite. Now that we have strong reasons to conclude that masking and distancing overlaid on inherently safer indoor air spaces effectively works to prevent transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we must rededicate ourselves to best safety practices until this pandemic is in the rear view mirror. And hopefully the safety practices required at the gym will become a habit and carry over to social and household gatherings that are actually driving the surge in COVID 19 cases.
Here is a link to a podcast put out by the Journal of the American Medical Association in which you can find support for much of the science discussed above, and in which Dr. Allen explains what is known and recommended about indoor air safety. You might find it helpful for rethinking the air circulation in your home, office, or business.
We are owners of the Riverfront Rock Gym in Wenatchee. Along with movie theaters, bowling alleys, and museums, gyms were singled out for complete closure on November 15, 2020. As of the date of writing this, we remain closed.