ELLSWORTH — The state-issued checklist for reopening salons and barbershops amid the COVID-19 pandemic is long, but not as lengthy as the list of men awaiting haircuts at High Street Barber Shop last Friday.
“Am I the only one open?” barber Stacey Warren asked as she trimmed a client’s hair and greeted others as they popped their heads in the door to be added to the list: “There’s 11 ahead of you, do you want to wait?”
The first phase of the Governor’s plan to gradually reopen the state’s economy began May 1, allowing the reopening of certain health care services, drive-in theaters and religious services, auto dealerships, golf courses and personal services such as barbershops, hair salons and pet grooming. But being allowed to open is not the same as being ready to open. Local hairstylists reported having trouble finding personal protective equipment. Some wondered why hair cutting, which requires close physical proximity, would be one of the first activities allowed to resume.
“Are we the guinea pigs?” asked Tracy Eaton, owner of Hairbenders Salon in Ellsworth.
“Golf courses are wide open spaces and hairdressers are up close and personal,” noted Patti Tonneson, who owns Hilights Salon in the Mill Mall. Last week she was still awaiting the arrival of two shipments of personal protective equipment for herself and four employees before deciding when to reopen.
Face shields have been hard to obtain even for frontline health-care workers. Warren got hers from her boyfriend, a welder. She has been buying cleaning products whenever she can find them in recent weeks. Obtaining surgical face masks was challenging. It cost her $90 to buy 50.
She arrived at the shop at 3 a.m. May 1 to give the place a final cleaning, and by 4:10 a.m., she had 18 customers waiting in their cars.
The six-page COVID-19 Prevention Checklist for hairdressers and barbers requires scheduled appointments (no walk-ins) with time in between to sanitize workspaces. Customers should wait outside or in their cars. Stylists and clients must wear face masks and employees also should wear face shields, if available.
Eaton said many of the rules for sanitization are already regular practice, but others are cumbersome, confusing and seem to have been made without sufficient input from the industry.
Wearing face shields and gloves, she said, would affect the quality of their work, which she and her 11 employees take pride in.
“It’s almost like someone’s tying our hands behind our back and saying, ‘OK, paint a picture.’”
She is tentatively planning for a mid-May opening for Hairbenders, but she and staff are still formulating a plan. Eaton will likely have to stagger staffing so that there is sufficient spacing between stations and allow 10 minutes for thorough cleaning in between each appointment, which will cut into revenue. Some of her employees have health issues that put them at higher risk for COVID-19 or have family members that do.
If stylists have to take such extreme precautions, “Is it really safe for us to open?” Eaton wondered.
In an email to clients, staff at Alchemist Salon in Ellsworth outlined safety precautions they plan to take when the salon reopens, including taking clients’ temperatures, requiring them to arrive wearing masks and asking them to hold onto personal belongings such as coats and purses while they’re having their hair cut.
Stylists must ask customers about recent travel and whether they have experienced common COVID-19 symptoms.
Tonneson likened the rule to being asked to become a “detective hairdresser.”
Walk-ins are a big part of her business and she wondered how the salon, which has been closed since March 14, would get by when it does reopen. Her stylists are employees, not booth renters, so they have been eligible for unemployment during the closure.
Asked whether employees might be making more money on unemployment than they would back at work, she said that was likely the case.
“They probably are better off and they know that they are better off but they still said ‘when you open up, we’ll be there,” said Tonneson, who early on during the closure continued to pay employees out of her personal savings while they awaited unemployment benefits. “That says a lot about them.”
She, on the other hand, has been on the “family protection plan,” with relatives helping to pay the bills. She planned to apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance last Friday, the first day she was eligible.
Tonneson said that while she and her employees miss their clients and want to get back to work, she doesn’t think hair salons should be on the forefront of reopening.
“I just want everybody to stay well,” she said.