Opinion: Why I Won't Be First in Line to Return to Climbing Gyms

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For a brief moment in time that we'll call "April" the public response to COVID-19 reflected the recommendations of scientists and healthcare professionals. Many within the US stayed home, limited social interactions, and wore masks when social interactions could not be avoided—like at the grocery store. Likewise, climbing gyms closed their doors, and many climbers paused their pursuit altogether and urged others to do the same. Now as states lift restrictions and businesses re-open, we're diverging from those expert recommendations. The climbing gyms that closed to protect the health of their members and staff in March are now sending Facebook invites for re-opening events. It's as though we crashed into the facts and our kinetic energy sent us bouncing off into the other direction. I've made a chart to illustrate this.

Chart

I'm confused. What do people think has happened? To date, there is no treatment for COVID-19, and there is no vaccine to prevent infection. We still don't have widespread testing in the US. Nothing has changed. If anything, the risk is of contracting the virus is greater today.

On March 15, right around the time states began shutting down, the US reported 1,237 new COVID-19 cases. On May 11, the most-recent date reporting case data as of press time, there were 18,106 new cases. It's more dangerous to be out and about today than it was back when we started taking preventative measures in Mid-March because there are more infected people out there spreading the virus.

It feels as though we tried our best for a month, and that was as much sacrifice as we were willing to make. Now we're awarding ourselves a participation trophy for our efforts, and going to Pizza Hut to celebrate—sitting in every other chair and washing our hands after each high five.

To be clear, the experts do not recommend re-opening. A report by Teresa Yamana, Sen Pei, and Jeffrey Shaman at Columbia University's Department of Environmental Health Sciences, forecasted that re-opening states now will cause infections to rise again:

"We observe a rebound in COVID-19 incidence and deaths beginning in late May, approximately 2 to 4 weeks after states begin to reopen. Importantly, the lag between infection acquisition and case confirmation, coupled with insufficient broader testing and contact tracing, will mask any rebound and exponential growth of the COVID-19 until it is well underway."

While many have made a big deal about flattening the curve as the first step in containing the virus, as Shaman told The New Yorker, we have not even managed to do that. "That statement that we have flattened the curve is wrong," he said. "In about a third of the states it’s flat. In some of them it’s going down, which is even better, and, in about one-third of them, like in Texas, it is rising. So there is not any consistent picture." Shaman stressed that, in order to re-open safely, we need widespread testing and contact tracing.

So why, if we all felt it was necessary to shut things down in March, do we think it's OK to go back to the climbing gym now?

As far as I can tell, people believe that relaxing restrictions are the result of progress against the virus and that if they operate within the new guidelines, they will be safe. That's not true. The government is not prioritizing individual health. They are walking a tightrope, trying to balance the health of the economy with the health of citizens. I do not share their priorities. To me, keeping myself alive and healthy is my number-one goal. It's almost as though the desire is baked into my DNA through millions of years of evolution. So, I will be making my own decisions.

Unfortunately, as Shaman explained in the New Yorker interview, we can't even determine what activities are high risk for viral spread.

"We don’t even know them for normal respiratory viruses—rhinovirus, the flu, normal endemic coronaviruses. We don’t know how they’re transmitted. We know things, but we don’t know what’s most important, because we don’t know the environments and circumstances that are most likely to lead to transmission. They only have anecdotal evidence for this, and it’s not something that we can systematically observe and figure out."

What we do know, is that enclosed spaces pose a high risk and that social distancing isn't enough in those places. Erin Bromage, a comparative immunologist and professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth wrote an excellent blog post which looked at available outbreak data and concluded that:

"Indoor spaces, with limited air exchange or recycled air and lots of people, are concerning from a transmission standpoint ... Social distancing guidelines don't hold in indoor spaces where you spend a lot of time, as people on the opposite side of the room were infected [in the available case studies]."

That doesn't make me feel good about climbing indoors, where power-screamed crux moves will send viral particles into the air. It doesn't help that I still see many climbers flouting the risks of COVID-19. The early belief was that only the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions faced fatal consequences. This, coupled with the fact that climbers tend to be fit and healthy, has created a misconception that we are immune from harm. The truth is that we still know very little about this virus, but the more we learn the scarier it seems. While at first it was thought to be a respiratory infection, we now know the effects are seen throughout the body. The Washington Post summarized:

"It attacks the heart, weakening its muscles and disrupting its critical rhythm. It savages kidneys so badly some hospitals have run short of dialysis equipment. It crawls along the nervous system, destroying taste and smell and occasionally reaching the brain. It creates blood clots that can kill with sudden efficiency and inflames blood vessels throughout the body."

Beyond the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions (who, for the record, aren't expendable), we're now seeing fatalities among other groups. For example, the Washington Post reported a surge in strokes among individuals in their 30s, 40s, and 50s due to the virus.

We also don't know much about COVID-19's long-term effects. One study found lung damage in nearly all patients tested. A Science News article by David Cox compared the results to SARS and MERS. "Long-term studies of SARS patients have shown that roughly a third of people who recovered from severe bouts were left with permanent lung damage," he wrote. "In the case of MERS, one study found about a third of people who recovered from a serious infection still had signs of lung damage about seven months later." This damage, pulmonary fibrosis, causes shortness of breath and limits physical activity—it's not something athletes should welcome with open arms.

I do have sympathy for the gyms. They're in a difficult position and may face the real possibility of going out of business. I've maintained my own gym membership because my employment is stable, and I'd urge you to do the same if you can afford it. Some gyms that have the option to re-open have chosen not to, and in many states, gyms don't have the option yet. A Climbing Business Journal article by John Burgman detailed the precautions re-opened gyms are taking. Some are limiting capacity to 20 or 50 members at a time. Some are are requiring masks. One gym has placed a strange emphasis on shoe sanitization, despite little evidence that shoes are spreading the virus.

And I could be over-estimating the risk. Bromage states, in the same post I've been referencing, that "If you are sitting in a well ventilated space, with few people, the risk is low." That might describe a climbing gym with high ceilings that is limiting capacity and requiring masks. Or maybe it describes the measures some gyms are taking, but not others. Or maybe, due to the exertive nature of our sport, there will always be a risk. Right now, we can only guess, but we should proceed with caution. Yesterday during a senate hearing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the world's leading infectious diseases experts, explained the consequences of re-opening too soon. "There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control, which, in fact, paradoxically, will set you back," he said. "Not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to trying to get economic recovery."

I know this is not what anyone wants to hear—I'm not happy with the state of the world, either. I did find some good news among all the bad news. The first draft of this article was titled "Why I Won't Be First in Line to Return to Gyms or Crags." After reading more on the topic, I revised the piece. Multiple sources minimized the risk outdoors. In his research, Bromage found only one outbreak traced to an outdoor environment. He wrote:

"Social distancing rules are really to protect you with brief exposures or outdoor exposures. In these situations there is not enough time to achieve the infectious viral load when you are standing 6 feet apart or where wind and the infinite outdoor space for viral dilution reduces viral load. The effects of sunlight, heat, and humidity on viral survival, all serve to minimize the risk to everyone when outside."

Likewise, a Vox article assessing the dangers of running and cycling concluded that solitary outdoor pursuits carried little risk. Common sense still applies. Stay close to home. Don't stand close to your climbing partner. Avoid crowded crags where close encounters are likely. Wear a face mask. And, to mitigate the risk of surface transmission, avoid touching your face, sanitize your hands between routes, and clip at your waist instead of pulling up slack and holding the rope in your mouth. That last point will also make your climbing more efficient. If we take those measures, outdoor climbing seems reasonable.

More than ever, I feel we are living in a world of personal responsibility. Like when we climb, our safety is in our own hands. We can't trust our state or federal government to make the best decision regarding our health, and we can't trust businesses to do so either. It's on each of us to decide if we should take this next lead, or bail and head back home. From my vantage, the clouds look a bit menacing above the gym, but the sun is shining at the local cliffs.