Jovan Richardson, owner of Creative Touch beauty and barbershop, works on a customer’s hair. Barbers, stylists and other personal care workers are receiving much-needed help after the Memphis Black Business Association awarded $1.2 million in grants. Photo by Johnathan Martin for MLK50

Barbers, hairdressers and other personal care workers are getting a holiday boost after the Memphis Black Business Association met the deadline to award $1.2 million in federal funding to workers hurt by the coronavirus pandemic.

“That’s what this grant did for us,” said Kenneth Murray, an East Memphis barbershop owner who received a $1,000 grant. “It helped us during a season of giving, as well as trying to just stay afloat.” 

In early November, the city and three nonprofits, including the BBA, had a total of $7.5 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act aid to give away by the end of the year when the funds would have to be paid back to the federal government. Some money is designated for general rent and mortgage assistance, while the rest is for workers and small businesses whose services are directly interrupted by the pandemic, such as barbers, cosmetologists, restaurant staff and hotel employees. 

This week, officials for the nonprofits — the BBA, the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association and Welcome to Memphis — said they would meet the deadline to spend the funds by the end of the year. Help in spending the money came when the Memphis City Council on Nov. 17 increased the maximum grant from $300 to $1,000 for the BBA and $600 for Welcome to Memphis.

“It just took off like wildfire,” said Mark Yates, BBA president. “Once people received the $1,000 and went back, it’s almost like an infection, no pun intended. They went back to their beauty shops or barbershops and told everybody else. (Then) we saw just this significantly huge jump in applications.”

The number of applications, Yates said, went from about 600 to about 1,900 across 10 days. 

Hair stylists, barbers and other personal care workers have struggled through shutdowns and restrictions because of the pandemic. Locally, businesses not designated as essential were ordered closed on March 24 under a city/county shelter-in-place order in an attempt to slow the transmission of COVID-19. They were allowed to reopen on May 6 under strict guidelines.

The BBA received about 1,900 applications for the CARES aid. “It just took off like wildfire,” said Mark Yates, BBA president. Photo by Johnathan Martin for MLK50

Many are still struggling, said Damon Dorsey, president of the Milwaukee-based American Barber Association. Clients’ fear of the virus and fewer clients because of social distancing requirements have slowed income, while costs have risen because of more robust sanitation, protective measures and less activity that would encourage people to visit their barber, he said. 

“Barbershops and barbers in general, their business kind of reflects the economy,” Dorsey said. “If the economy is slow, barbershops are going to feel that, and when you have businesses closing, vacancy rates rising, it’s going to affect local barbershops because people aren’t coming out as much to (the) shop.”

Murray, owner of Memphis’ Finest Barber Shop, said traffic in his shop is down 30% to 40%, while his expenses have grown from the cost of cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment. 

Not only are businesses having to deal with reduced income, their expenses have also grown from the cost of extra cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment. Photo by Johnathan Martin for MLK50

“We’re nowhere near where we were before we closed (during the shutdown), because a lot of people, they’re scared,” Murray said. “They have fears about being out in public, so it crippled our business a little bit.”

Murray has dipped into his savings to sustain his shop through the pandemic, but he said the financial hit is not one newer personal care professionals may be able to afford.

“People that might be barbers who are just getting started, and beauticians that are just getting started and don’t have the clientele like I do — I can see them really, really struggling,” Murray said.

He hopes the roll out of the vaccines this week will calm his clients’ fears and allow them to resume regular activities that would encourage people to get hair cuts.

Still, coronavirus cases continue to rise in Shelby County, with new cases topping 1,000 on Thursday and 625 on Friday. The White House coronavirus task force this week ranked Tennessee second in the nation in new cases. 

Race to distribute funds

Congress passed the CARES Act in March, allocating billions of dollars to help Americans through the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. The City of Memphis received about $113 million in aid, a portion of which the city gave to organizations to be distributed to individuals and small businesses.

In addition to the $1.2 million for the BBA, the CARES funding included $3.5 million for MIFA, $600,000 for Welcome to Memphis, and $5 million for the City of Memphis Office of Business Diversity and Compliance for small businesses. 

The BBA was in a race against the clock to distribute the funds at $300 per person last month, Yates said, but the cap increase helped make the task not so “huge.”

The organization spent about $25,000 on billboards, radio ads, and going door to door with thousands of flyers. But the most effective advertising was word of mouth, Yates said.

Hair stylist Stephanie Williams, who works at Hair Illusions near the University of Memphis, has been doing hair for about 20 years. She said the BBA’s grant couldn’t have come at a better time.

“People assume that when women come to the hair salon, all we do is gossip. But no, we plan, we strategize, we talk about the elections.”

Stephanie Williams, hairstylist

However, the economic hit to her industry caused by the pandemic has encouraged her to make a career change, she said.

“This (didn’t) necessarily force me to pivot, but brought home to me how important it is for you to always have a backup plan or something else that you could possibly do if something else doesn’t work out for you.”

But shrinking personal care isn’t just a loss of revenue for professionals, Williams said, but also a loss of community connection.

“People assume that when women come to the hair salon, all we do is gossip. But no, we plan, we strategize, we talk about the elections. We talk about what it is we need to do to better ourselves, to better our communities. We discuss ideas. How do we get things done? How do we make sure things are better for the people on the street that don’t have life as well as we do.”

Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.

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