A customer gets his hair cut in the chair at Chopper City Barbershop in early May, shortly after reopening. “It’s incumbent on the barbershops to do all they can to make sure customers are safe,” said Damon Dorsey, president and CEO of the American Barber Association. Photo by Johnathan Martin.

Javon Richardson is back at work at Creative Touch barber and beauty shop in Raleigh, but many of her clients haven’t returned.

“I think it’s still the fear,” said the hair stylist who was closed for six weeks during a shelter-in-place order because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but reopened May 8. “I understand people are being cautious, but financially, it’s hard on me as well because I still have to pay booth rent.”

On Tuesday, local officials announced that a move from Phase 2 of the reopening plan, which allowed salons and barbershops to resume business under strict conditions, to Phase 3 would be delayed until at least June 16 after the Shelby County Health Department reported a one-day increase of an additional 190 positive coronavirus cases.

Pre-pandemic, Richardson said she styled 15 to 20 clients a week at her shop, and another 30 to 40 people at a local rehabilitation facility. Now, that’s down to six or seven customers a week at the shop, and none at the rehab center because only employees are allowed in because of the virus.

“I had a little bit of money saved,” Richardson said, adding that she delayed filing for unemployment benefits until about two weeks before the shops were allowed to reopen. “But I was just hoping everything would eventually open back up” and her clientele would return.

Doing business during a pandemic is proving difficult for some salon and barbershop owners. The fallout for business owners include fewer customers because of fear, client income loss and social distancing rules; and increased costs for supplies, including cleaning products and protective wear.

Meanwhile, customers can anticipate longer wait times for appointments, and possibly higher prices.

Richardson has considered increasing her prices but has held off as many of her clients haven’t returned to their jobs.

“I don’t want to overprice them, because I’m going through something and I know they’re going through something, as well,” she said. “I don’t want to (raise prices) but if things don’t pick up for me, I’m thinking about it. I don’t want to do that to my loyal customers that have been with me.”

Businesses not designated as essential were ordered closed on March 24 under a city/county shelter-in-place order meant to drastically slow the pace of transmission of the coronavirus. Reopenings are being done in phases; hair salons and barbershops were allowed to reopen in Phase 1 on May 6 under strict guidelines.

The city and county had considered shifting into Phase 3 as early as Monday, but a rising number of COVID-19 infections has put that on hold. But rules for the shops remain the same in Phase 3 as in Phase 2: They must practice social distancing between customers and workstations; check employees’ temperature before they enter; wear face masks and gloves when rendering services, and require customers to wear masks when practical; stock hand sanitizer, soap, and/or sanitizing wipes; use capes and smocks only once between washings; and serve customers by appointment.

Last month in Springfield, Missouri, health officials alerted the public that a hairstylist who tested positive for coronavirus served 84 clients over eight days while experiencing symptoms, and a second stylist at the salon who later tested positive served 56 clients, exposing them all to the virus. Public health officials said in late May that 42 of the 140 clients exposed had tested negative for the virus.

Even before COVID-19 hit, local shop owners were careful about sanitation, they said.

“When we go to school, 90% of the things they’re teaching us about are sanitizing,” said Jwan Buckhalter, owner of Chopper City Barber Shop and the attached Barbers University barber school in Raleigh.

On Wednesday, the virus had claimed more than 105,500 lives in the United States and 116 in Shelby County, where there are 5,412 confirmed cases.

The business of recovery

Tiffany Burton was happy to be back in Richardson’s care when she returned to Creative Touch last month for a shampoo and flat iron by her longtime stylist.

Burton, who is employed at a bank and is considered an essential worker, had enjoyed bi-weekly appointments for years. But during the shutdown, she resorted to wearing her hair in two braids.

“I was excited. I hadn’t seen my friend,” Burton said. “I was the only client there. It made me feel safe. It was sanitized. I felt comfortable,” she said.

Both were wearing masks. Burton had brought her own, along with gloves.

“I waited in the car until she texted me to come in. I got there on time as one customer was leaving,” Burton said. “It was perfect.”

She still worries about her friend and possible exposure, due to her working so closely with customers.

“We’re still in the pandemic, even though we’re out and people are thinking that the normal is back. It’s not,” said Burton, who plans on visiting the salon this week for a braided hairdo.

“She’s coming into contact with people that she doesn’t know where (they’ve been),” Burton said. “But you have to continue to do what you’re doing. She’s a professional. She cares about the customers’ well being and she cares about her own well being.”

Richardson, who has a young son and cares for her grandmother, said she keeps them in mind. “I have to be careful about who I’m around. Most of my clients have been with me for years. They’re more like family. It’s also for our (hair stylists’) safety because we still have to go home to our families.”

While closed, Richardson fielded calls from customers seeking advice on styling their hair.

“I had a couple of friends ask what’s a good protective style they could do. A lot of them are natural and they want to learn how to do natural two-strand twists or something like that,” she said. “I either walked them through it or I advised them to watch certain videos on Youtube.”

She wasn’t worried about losing customers to DIY styles once the shop reopened. “A lot of people really don’t have the knack to do hair or the desire to do their own hair,” she said. “I had a lot of clients to come back and say, ‘I don’t see how you do it.’”

The loss of income from the rehab center is a bigger blow to her than the decrease in business at the salon, Richardson said. She is learning to cope, though.

“I always had money saved,” she said. “I just have to cut back on a lot of things. I really have to do a lot more cooking at home and cut back on spending and shopping.”

Shutdown brings introspection, clarity

Amber Houston reopened Pure Capelli Growth Salon in East Memphis May 7, but is working fewer days at the salon — down from six to five a week — and shorter hours.

She had time to think during the closure, and realized she needed to adjust her priorities so she could spend more time enjoying life with her 12-year-old son. Then she came up with a plan to achieve that, plus maintain her income.

Houston, who specializes in making wigs and in hair extensions, began coloring and styling wigs from home. She either mailed the wigs to clients or met them somewhere, sometimes delivering the new do’s through her car window.

She has continued to do some work from home, and set aside time for herself.

“This pandemic gave me a whole lot of clarity about what I can do outside the salon,” she said. “It gave me a different perspective about what I can do with my time.”

Houston was anxious to get back to the shop, though, worried about the condition of clients’ hair during the shutdown. She also does micro links hair extensions, which use tiny beads to attach and hold in place strands of hair. They should be tightened every four weeks to prevent pulling and causing hair loss.

She advised those clients to put their hair in a “loose ponytail or bun, so it won’t create tension” around the hairline, and other clients on which hair products to use.

Anxious clients alerted Houston when shops could reopen. She immediately ordered a face shield and bottles of a 24-hour disinfectant, then emailed clients detailing precautions she was taking to reopen.

These measures include allowing only one customer at a time in the shop, taking their temperature before they enter, and if there is a problem getting the temperature to register, she has a pulse oximeter on hand to check their oxygen level. A low oxygen level can be a sign of COVID-19.

Houston requires clients to wear a mask, and provides them if needed.

Her clients — about 30 a week before the pandemic — book months in advance, but appointments are harder to get now with the popular stylist. She is seeing 20 percent fewer customers in the shop.

“My calendar opens up 60 days in advance,” Houston said. “If you see an appointment open there, go ahead and book it” because it will fill up fast.

‘I don’t see their faces anymore’

Chopper City Barber Shop, which reopened May 11, has seven barbers who served up to 450 customers a week before the pandemic, said Buckhalter. Now, they are down to about 275.

“You still have a lot of people afraid to come around a lot of people,” he said. “A lot of times, even though you take a lot of precautions, some people are overly skeptical.”

Buckhalter has seen his barbering income decrease from $2,500 a week before COVID-19 to about $700 during the first week of reopening. It’s at about $1,000 a week now, he said.

He’d hoped to recover faster from the financial strain of the shutdown. A $4,500 federal Paycheck Protection Program loan helped pay some bills, and he had some reserved personal funds, Buckhalter said.

These days, he’s going over emails and phone lists to reconnect with clients.

“We’re trying to make sure they feel as comfortable as possible with what we’re doing,” he said.

Because prices at his shop are already at a premium for the area — $23 for an adult cut; $30 with a shave — Buckhalter doesn’t plan to raise them. But he is passing on the cost of masks to customers, selling them for $1 each.

He has reduced hours to comply with requirements for the reopening, he said, and eliminated more than half of the seating, from 23 waiting area chairs to 10. He keeps business moving by nudging along customers who are used to hanging out to talk after having their hair cut.

He wants to be there for his clients, who include police officers, physicians and school principals, but also wants to keep them safe.

“We’re counselors. People come in and sit in our chairs and we make them look good and feel good before they go back out into the world,” Buckhalter said.

The other six barbers working out of the shop are still at their stations, but for limited hours because a lot of their customers haven’t recovered from income loss related to the pandemic. Some have had to take other jobs and apply for unemployment benefits, Buckhalter said.

“I don’t see some of the faces that I was seeing on a regular basis. I had customers that came every week. Some of those guys I don’t see their faces anymore. Some kids, I don’t see those faces anymore.”

He misses them.

“I’ve been in the community for 20 years. I’ve probably seen most of the people in here from the time they were in elementary school.”

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