Will barbershops and salons survive the coronavirus pandemic?
As COVID-19 shutters businesses across the country, barbers and hairstylists struggle to hold onto their clients
Just 10 days after the pandemic forced him to shut down Elite Hair Studio in the Jamaica, Queens section of New York City, Aundray Hill stopped by his shop to reminisce. The flick of the switch returned bright light to the now empty space, and also brought back memories: the customers who’d gift him his favorite green tea and Starbucks oatmeal; the conversations that centered on faith, family and friendships; the camaraderie.
“I miss my customers,” Hill said. “I’ve been open just over a year, and we spent that time firmly establishing ourselves. The operators in my shop are going through it right now. This has been incredibly tough.”
Even before New York announced it was hitting the PAUSE (“Policies Assure Uniform Safety for Everyone”) that went into effect in late March, Hill anticipated the closures. As professional sports leagues shut down and basketball tournaments in New York came to a halt, Hill sent a group text to his clients warning them that he might soon have to lock his doors. “If there’s something imperative that you need,” he remembered writing, “now is the time to come in and get it done.”
Over the next few days, clients rushed to the studio, dreading the thought of a missed treatment. On the evening of March 21, Hill applied the final touches to his last customer — one of his regulars — and gathered the four other operators who shared his studio for a brief meeting.
“I sat everyone down and tried to cheer them up, and told them to take a professional reset,” Hill said. “And I told them to use this little time off to do things that they might not have had time to do.”
After the meeting, they cleaned up together and prepared to leave. But Hill brought the group back to the center of the shop, where they formed a circle, clasped hands and prayed.
“I pray that all of our families remain safe and sound, and I pray that everyone has an open mind and taps into your inner gifts,” Hill recalled telling them. “I pray that we all have health, wealth and prosperity. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
As they dispersed, Hill assumed they’d all be together again in two or three weeks. But almost two months later — even as businesses in other states have controversially reopened in recent days — Elite Hair Studio remains closed.
The COVID-19 pandemic has severed barbers, stylists and beauticians from their customers at a time of record unemployment — and there is no end in sight.
The patrons of these businesses find themselves, in the rare times they leave their homes, running errands wearing hats and scarves that conceal jacked-up hairlines, overflowing ’fros, brokedown eyebrows and the shocking emergence of gray hair.
America on lockdown ain’t pretty.
“If you notice, there are fewer selfies being posted these days, and for a lot of my clients, their boyfriends or husbands might be suddenly realizing that their significant other is wearing high-end eyelash extensions,” said Rochelle Magno, a beautician who has worked with celebrities such as La La Anthony (Showtime’s Power), Angela Yee (The Breakfast Club) and Tahiry (VH1’s Love & Hip-Hop). Magno owns The Lash Gallery, which has two New York City-area locations in Jersey City, New Jersey, and Manhattan.
“For a lot of people right now, it’s a lot of shock. That just shows what we do is important: We play a role in people’s confidence,” Magno said.
But even more than her client’s looks, Magno’s concerns these days are about keeping her landlord at bay. While she awaits word on the Paycheck Protection Program loan she applied for, she’s trying to work out an arrangement where she can rent the same space when business is allowed to return. “The good thing is [the landlord] is being forced to give us a little breathing room during these difficult times,” Magno said. “But no one knows how long this will last, and there are no long-term guarantees.”
She receives constant phone calls and emails from customers and nonregulars all craving a hookup. “They’re asking to come to my house, or a home visit,” Magno said. “I tell them the same thing I wrote on my Instagram page: The morticians are out there working, and you might be giving them some business if you stay out there on these streets.”
The risks of cutting hair during this outbreak can be deadly. Eugene Thompson, a barber in Mississippi, died last month from COVID-19 just days after his 46th birthday. Like most Americans, Thompson continued working after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11. Mississippi’s stay-at-home regulations weren’t issued until weeks later on April 3. Thompson announced his symptoms and the closing of his shop in a March 17 Facebook post. Eighteen days later, he was dead.
There are indicators, based on the fresh shape-ups and well-maintained dos of people posting on social media, that some stylists have continued working even after the imposition of social distancing directives. That was the case with Larry, a 38-year-old barber in Baltimore, who shifted his customers from the shop where he works to his mother’s basement.
Larry began reaching out to customers shortly after all but essential businesses were closed in Maryland on March 23. Some customers reached out to him via text. The result was a semi-steady flow of clients through the backdoor of his Northeast Baltimore row house into his “new” basement shop.
The space was tight. The setup, improvised. With no barber chair, customers got their cuts while seated on an oversized cooler.
“I cut about three or four heads a day during the week, and seven to eight on the weekends,” Larry said. “I had customers who I haven’t cut in years reach out.”
The precautions Larry took in the basement were similar to the ones he used at the shop: He washed his hands often and he cleaned his clippers. What was different? He wore a face mask (it was optional for his customers) and made sure to wipe everything down and disinfect the floors when his clients left.
That lasted for about four weeks until April 21, when Gov. Larry Hogan signed an executive order that allowed barbers and hairstylists to return to shops to work on “essential” employees (workers with written documentation from their employers stating they had to “meet grooming standards” at their jobs) by appointment only.
As an independent contractor who wasn’t eligible for unemployment, Larry said, the risks he took were necessary. “I have bills to pay, like gas for my car and car insurance,” Larry said. “I just pray that everything works out OK.”
For barbers who have a more exclusive clientele, the demand to surreptitiously work during the pandemic is no less pressing, though easier to turn down.
Jay Mallari, a Bay Area-based barber who has cut the hair of NBA stars such as Stephen Curry and Karl-Anthony Towns, said he’s constantly getting texts and calls from clients looking to be spruced up since California went on lockdown.
“Every day, a client is checking in, either offering to come to my house or asking me to go to theirs,” Mallari said. “One customer offered me a 3M Versaflo, which has its own personal air filter system and even sent me a picture. I don’t think I’m going to go to that extreme.”
The shutdown has eliminated Mallari’s earnings and forced him to delay the opening of a new storefront that was scheduled for later this year, though savings from his once-lucrative business and partnerships with brands such as Gillette have provided a financial cushion.
“The only haircutting going on in my home is when my wife cuts my hair,” Mallari said. “Of course I want to get back, but only when it’s safe. I had a lot of things happening, but with no meetings and no income, life is on hold.”
Not cutting hair has been an emotional strain as well. “To me, it’s missing an opportunity to have awesome conversations and a chance to get to know them better, and to them, it’s a chance to be real and to just shoot the s—. I miss that,” Mallari said. “But what we’re facing is pretty serious. I’m going to follow the science.”
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At Quality Kutz barbershop in Harrisburg, North Carolina, a suburb of 16,000 people northeast of Charlotte, it’s common to see upward of 100 customers a week coming in and out of the shop.
Its owner and sole barber, Donald Griffin, who has been cutting hair for more than 40 years, said closing his shop has meant more than uncertainty about his next paycheck. Quality Kutz doubled as a local commons, a community spot where people come for conversation, therapy and advice.
“My customers come in to discuss their marital problems, problems at work, climbing the corporate ladder and their worries about retirement,” Griffin said. “When you’re cutting the hair of a family that spans generations — a grandfather, his son and his grandson — there’s a connection that goes beyond being a barber.”
Griffin fears that connection might be broken when he’s allowed to reopen. Besides customers feeling reluctant to get a haircut, regulars who occasionally drop in just to chat might be fearful in the midst of a pandemic.
“We have patrons and others who come and talk, and those are conversations they enjoy that they may not get at home,” Griffin said. “There will be people who want to come in like they used to, and there will be people who want to stay away. I understand.”
Uncertainty hovers over the entire industry. Keeping people attractive is a hands-on business, which is difficult in a world where a COVID-19 vaccine may be a year away.
“If I’m wearing protection gear and giving my clients protection gear, how do we do it where we both feel safe, and at the same time don’t feel like we’re insulting each other?” Magno asked. “And how do I react when I hear a cough from a customer who’s calling to make an appointment? There’s a lot of questions.”
Those are among the concerns for Hill as he contemplates returning to work in his Queens salon. While Hill is on hiatus from doing hair, he’s been talking constantly with his customers who are due for their regular beautification sessions.
“Some of the women don’t even own a comb,” Hill said. “I’m telling them what to do, and I’m telling them what products to get so they can keep their hair healthy.”
And while he’s offering advice, Hill is thinking about the changes he’s going to have to make upon reopening his doors.
“I’m a germaphobe and wore a mask in the two weeks before we shut down, but that was very uncomfortable,” Hill said. “I couldn’t breathe properly and it was hard to talk through, and this is such a conversation business. The fact that will be different troubles me.”
Hill worries that the intimacy of his work will be lost, that cutting hair will become impersonal.
“Always lots of hugs for my customers when you enter my shop because that’s what we do,” Hill said. “Now, that’s probably going to have to change.”
After saying that, Hill grew silent. No more magazines in shops. No more candy jars. No more showing up with spouses or friends. No more hugs.
“I think, when we return, business will be bustling,” Hill said after a while. “I just don’t think it’s going to be business as usual.”