With some of Montana’s favorite climbing routes still inaccessible under spring conditions, the Freestone Climbing Center in Missoula typically serves as a welcome reprieve, offering climbers a way to practice and condition for the outdoor season.
But the gym remains closed under public health orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it could take time to reopen, even when those orders are lifted.
“We haven’t done much, just letting things settle as they are,” said Walter Hailes, who opened the gym in 2011. “We’re going to bring the employees back as we get approval to do so. We’ll strip the routes off the walls, clean the whole facility and reset the routes. We’ve got about two weeks of full-time work to go before we can reopen, once we are given the go ahead.”
It remains unknown when gyms will be given the clear to reopen, though Hailes remains optimistic. When the orders to close went into effect, he was forced to furlough his 20 employees.
But even then, as they filed for unemployment, he offered to cover the remaining portion of their pay. Some gym members have offered to help.
“We’re trying to make the employees whole during this time,” said Hailes. “We’re not making any money and we’ve put the memberships on freeze. But there are a few members who have been pretty generous, saying that if we keep paying our employees, they’ll keep paying their membership.”
The closure has given Hailes a chance to tackle other projects that weren’t planned until summer. Hailes is also thinking ahead to when the gym reopens, and how the facility will keep things sanitized.
While assistance from the government has been helpful, he added, it hasn’t always been easy. He plans on bringing his employees back to work when the opportunity comes.
“The challenge for us is that all the government programs are asking you to hire your people back, but we don’t have any work for them to do because we can’t open at this point,” he said. “We’re just trying to balance it out and figure out the best way to proceed.”