Bad Hair Day: COVID-19 Upends the Beauty Industry

As people travel miles for haircuts, local barbers and stylists demand a solution.

Changes Salon and Day Spa in Walnut Creek had been open for almost a month when the salon’s general manager, Cristiana Andersson, talked to SF Weekly on July 8 about their new setup. In accordance with state guidelines, Changes had introduced an exhaustive array of new sanitation and screening procedures: temperature checks, PPE, social distancing, Plexiglass barriers, and constant disinfection of every surface.

“We’re happy to be open,” Andersson says. “We’re willing to do it, but it definitely is a process. It’s a whole new world.”

And Changes’ clients — including a fair number of new faces — were certainly happy the salon was open as well. Andersson estimated that the salon’s appointment waitlist, which was made available in preparation for the June 17 opening, had 125 names on it within the first hour of going live.

Upon reopening, many of Anderssen’s first customers were new patrons from other counties — including Napa and parts of the South Bay, who 45 minutes or more just to find a legal haircut. As the pandemic lockdown stretched on interminably for much of the Bay Area, and as bad quarantine hair grew worse, Contra Costa County, where Changes is located, was one of the few counties in the region that reopened salons and barber shops during the brief window of time the state allowed stylists to trim hair.

“We’ve got people specifically saying like, ‘Oh, yeah, salons aren’t open in my area so that’s why I’m coming to you,’” Andersson says.

Now, however, those unkempt out-of-towners will have to look elsewhere. As coronavirus cases spike across California, sweeping new state guidelines released July 13 forced a number of counties to pause or backtrack their reopening plans. Contra Costa, alongside nearly every other Bay Area county, had to shutter its salons and barber shops once more.

The lone holdout is San Mateo County — for now. 

San Mateo is the only Bay Area county that has successfully avoided Governor Newsom’s coronavirus watchlist. Counties that make the watchlist for three days or longer are forced to roll back their reopening, which includes the closure of salons and barbershops.

With their options narrowing, Bay Area residents in search of a haircut are migrating to businesses like All Star Barber Shop in San Mateo. Gloria Rosario, who has owned the business for 10 years, estimates that these days, about 75 percent of her clients come from other counties. And as cases continue to rise in San Mateo, Rosario says she is “very nervous.”

And so are her clients.

“Last week, it kinda slowed down, and then today was busy,” Rosario says. “Because people were waiting for Santa Clara to open up, and they just didn’t open, and they were waiting for San Francisco. So people today said, ‘Well you guys are the last resort. We have to come in and get haircuts.’ Because they’re not sure, once you close up, how long is it going to be? It was four months before.”

In the midst of the worst public health crisis in living memory a haircut might seem frivolous to some. But for Andersson it makes sense. The rush on open salons indicates a desire for “normalcy” in an overwhelmingly abnormal time, she says.

“While we had shelter-in-place, a lot of people that were essential workers were still being seen by the public, and I think that people, under times of stress or under times of concern, they want to feel their best,” Andersson says. “And while their outward appearance isn’t the most important thing, it is something that can affect the way that they feel in that moment.”

CUTTING IT CLOSE

For those sitting in one of the Bay Area’s few available salon chairs, a haircut might be a source of comfort or a way to look presentable at work. But for the stylists and barbers on the other side of the chair, it’s their livelihood. Like many small business owners, Rosario is fretting over bills and her income. At this point, she says she’s “kind of strapped,” and being forced to close down for a couple more months might mean closing down for good. She fears that any day now someone could show up to her barber shop and tell her to shut down in the middle of an appointment.

“None of us get a warning when we’re opening, when we’re closing, we just have to constantly read the papers and look at the news,” Rosario says. “No one is contacting us barbers, not Consumer Affairs, the Health Department, the counties that we got our license from. We just have to follow protocol and watch the news, and when they say open, we got to be ready to open. And when they say shut down, it’s immediately shut down.”

Rosario’s fears are well founded. In Santa Clara County, barber shops and salons opened for just two days earlier this month. Stylists who resumed business on July 13 got word later that very day that they would have to put away their shears on July 15, as surging coronavirus cases had landed the county on the state’s watch list. 

José Barba, the owner of San Jose barber shop Barba & Co., didn’t even bother to open.

“I had kind of seen the writing on the walls, so I didn’t really push or get ready for this two day opening that they let us have,” Barba says. “We’ve been preparing for the long haul… Even when they gave us the date to reopen we knew that it was gonna not happen.”

José Barba of Barba & Co. said it wasn’t even worth trying to open. (Photo: José Barba)

Barba is among a growing group of Santa Clara beauty and grooming professionals who have been pushing the county to let them reopen. On June 29, he joined about 25 barbers and stylists in a protest outside the Santa Clara Public Health Department building, demanding a reopening date. Stylists and barbers argue that they’re being unfairly targeted for continued closure. Because they undergo extensive training in sanitation, stylists argue they are better prepared to reopen safely than restaurants or grocery stores.

They may have a point.

On July 14, the CDC released a report on two Missouri hair stylists who continued to serve clients while infected with COVID-19. Both stylists wore masks, and of their 139 clients, not one got sick.

“[We have] air purifiers, [we have] fans going, we have doors open, we have shields on, face shields, we have masks, we have goggles for our face, we have gloves on,” Rosario says. “Temperatures taken, waivers written, sanitized for your hands, one person at a time in the shop. I mean we’re taking all the precautions and when you go to the grocery store, they don’t do that precaution.”

Rachel Kagan, the communications director for the San Francisco Department of Public Health, said the CDC study is encouraging, but the choice to keep the personal service industry closed is “not so much about the specific safety issues around any one particular business or activity.”

“Right now we have to pause, because having any business open that is not yet open attracts more people,” Kagan says. “That’s another reason for someone to leave the house. That’s another reason for someone to travel. That person who’s traveling or leaving the house may or may not be wearing a face covering, may or may not be keeping six feet apart. We absolutely hope that they are, but we need to reduce any occasion for people to gather with people who are not in their household, any opportunity to not wear a mask, to not keep six feet apart. So it isn’t to say that a particular salon or barber shop isn’t safe, it’s not really about the safety of every affected service, or the risk of every affected service. It’s about slowing everything down.”

SPLITTING HAIRS

On July 20, Governor Newsom offered frustrated stylists and barbers a compromise: They will be permitted to operate outdoors statewide, even if indoor services have been shut down in their county. The new guidelines detail how outdoor venues must be set up, including a requirement that any tents or canopies must be open on at least three sides for proper airflow. 

This seems like a win for a struggling industry, but to Barba, the idea of opening up outdoors is a non-starter. The guidelines require salons and barbershops to set up around their licensed premises, which Barba predicts will leave out many smaller independent studios housed in larger malls or complexes that don’t have the outdoor space they need. He’s also concerned about how safe and sanitary it would be to operate in a public space like a parking lot.

“If I put the chairs in front of my barbershop, I have room for it and it would look cool,” Barba says. “But then the guidance says that I can only have one side covered, so does the building behind me count as one side? So then in that case I’m not blocking anything from the people that are walking by. And we have people with their dogs walking by.”

To Barba, Newsom’s new guidelines imply that setting up shop outside is for the “desperate.”

“In my opinion it seems like it’s a modern day Marie Antoinette,” Barba says. “You know, ‘They can’t eat bread, well let them eat cake.’”

A better option, Barba suggests, would be to loosen restrictions that prevent barbers and stylists from working at their clients’ homes, and setting up for individual backyard appointments. In fact, following mass closures of salons and barbershops, much of the beauty industry has already moved underground. Both professional and amateur barbers and stylists have taken to platforms like Craiglist and NextDoor to advertise mobile services. None of the mobile stylists contacted by SF Weekly responded to requests for comment, but the practice is an open secret in the industry.

“I’ve seen mayors and police officers have hair cuts so I’m pretty sure someone’s cutting them, I can’t say per se, but I’m pretty sure that there’s a lot of people out there,” Barba says. “There’s always an opportunistic person out there, so I’m not blaming him for it. I mean, you have to go get your money where you have to go get it. And honestly, do I think that those people have contributed to the spread? I don’t think that they contributed to the spread any more so than anyone going to Safeway or Target, getting their normal groceries.”

Ongoing dissatisfaction with regulation of personal services by the state and individual counties is fostering a growing movement within the industry. A Facebook group started in June by a small number of Santa Clara barbers and stylists, including Barba, to organize a push for a reopening date has since grown to be almost 800 members large. Barba says they are planning a new protest to demand a more workable solution than the outdoor guidelines offered by Newsom, and to push for the reopening of other parts of the beauty industry. Barba said the group is also talking about the possibility of a union. Bay Area barbers haven’t organized in decades, Barba said, after unions fell apart in the mid-20th century.

“It’s been about 50 years and I still walk into old barber shops where I don’t know the guys, and I’m just like, ‘Hey, how you doing,’ and I get these means stares, like, ‘I work alone, get out of here,’” Barba says. “It’s insane, but hopefully all those old guys are not too much in here anymore.”

For the moment, however, Bay Area stylists and clients may need to adjust to an outdoor salon experience — especially as San Mateo County braces for the possibility of new restrictions in coming days. When Rosario spoke to SF Weekly after closing up her shop on Monday, she hadn’t yet heard the news that she could continue to operate outside even if her shop had to close. She immediately started brainstorming her setup aloud, and was confident she could make it work.

“Whatever it takes to run a business, you got to do it, right?”

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Related Stories