Beauty Salons Are Reopening, But the Risk Is Real

This situation highlights the lack of security in our industry

A closeup photo of a hair stylist cutting a client’s hair.
Photo: Vystekimages/Getty Images

The salon industry’s job growth has consistently outperformed the overall economy in 11 of the past 14 years. It is touted as a career that offers you the ability to be your own boss, travel, and connect with clients, forging relationships across racial lines and class differences. That growth may falter in the wake of Covid-19’s catastrophic impact, particularly Black and Hispanic communities around the country. The results disproportionately put marginalized workers into the crosshairs of the demands of richer — and often White—clientele.

Black and Latino business owners in the beauty industry are far more likely to be self-employed, more likely to be rejected from federal funding, and less likely to receive government assistance during this crisis. They have fewer resources to fall back on, as it’s also known that African Americans have less intergenerational wealth, which means the pressure to reopen is high. Worse, the likelihood of dying from doing so after being exposed in a setting where it is impossible to socially distance, is also much higher.

Because of these challenges, many stylists have begun banding together to create guidelines for local and state officials with the hopes that their personal experience in the industry will help create a safer environment for people as they return to work. Kiara Bailey, a hairstylist and business mentor, created the website Covid-19 Salon Reopening Guidelines out of this necessity, and several of the people interviewed for this piece mentioned it as being more useful than the guidelines the government has thus far provided. Bailey’s team of stylists has sent suggested policies to every governor in the country.

During a phone call, Bailey said, “Unemployment [benefits] ending before the crisis is over and salons reopening in stages — it’s a trap that makes it so whether you want to go back to work or not isn’t up to you anymore. The typical profit margin is 4%, so the numbers you have to be doing are pretty high. This situation highlights the lack of security in our industry. So many people have been financially devastated in a matter of weeks. And my biggest fear is a relapse in infections. We can sanitize, we have been trained for thousands of hours, but people can refuse to put on a mask, people can have no consideration.”

Black and Latino business owners in the beauty industry are far more likely to be self-employed, more likely to be rejected from federal funding, and less likely to receive government assistance during this crisis.

Alejandro Santoy, a Latinx hairstylist with clients in both the border town of Laredo, Texas, and Monterrey, Mexico, has been out of work for two months. During this time, he’s witnessed fellow technicians and stylists in town get arrested for doing home visits to undercover police in a series of sting operations and younger clients ignore social distancing protocol. Even with salons in his town now allowed to reopen, Santoy is wary of the consequences of returning to work. “I see my clients on Instagram having parties and not wearing masks. They’ll be the first to try to come back and possibly expose us,” he says. “I’m only seeing the older clients that came in before this several times a week — and I need to protect them the most. They’re at higher risk and have been adhering to isolation guidelines.” He’s back to work now but with a limited schedule and a two-month backlog, with no end in sight for border closures that prevent Santoy from seeing half his clientele.

Meanwhile, Shelley Luther, a White salon owner from Dallas, was able to create a lucrative situation for herself out of the crisis. Ignoring Gov. Greg Abbot’s public safety plan, Luther kept her business, Salon à la Mode, open and was sentenced to seven days in jail for contempt of court. Before she was arrested, however, a group called “The Woke Patriots” started a GoFundMe campaign for her legal fees before she was even arrested and raised more than $500,000 while calling her an “American hero” — all the while catering to a new celebrity client, Ted Cruz. At her court hearing, Luther argued that it was necessary to open the salon for “financial reasons” regarding her mortgage. She had been approved for a government loan under the Paycheck Protection Program two days earlier, something 88% of Black and Latino business owners can’t say for themselves. In a survey of minority business owners around the country, 45% of Black and Latino small business owners anticipate closing within six months, and just 12% of them received the federal assistance they requested. Since reopening, Texas has been delivering the worst numbers it has seen so far in the pandemic, and the state is not meeting its goal of tests per day, while positive results are increasing.

“People I know personally have done the three-hour drive from Columbia to Atlanta to get their nails done since the city was reopened.”

The collaboration between federal and local officials has also left something to be desired. A Texas mayor is under investigation for visiting a nail salon while her town was under stay-at-home orders. Elsewhere in Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp opened up Georgia despite scientists’ advice to keep the state closed. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has been compelled to toe a line between contradicting the governor’s guidance and hoping her community heeds her own. Atlanta has now been open for several weeks, subsequently seeing an uptick in cases and a wave of what is now called pandemic tourism. On CNN, the mayor said, “I work very well with our governor, and I look forward to having a better understanding of what his reasoning is, but as I look at the data and as I talk with our public health officials, I don’t see that it’s based on anything that’s logical.” Bottoms has spearheaded a campaign to open an emergency fund for cosmetologists and salon techs in her city, though as of this writing, the most recent donation was 12 days ago — around the time salons were permitted but not encouraged to reopen. Meanwhile, NAACP local chapters are encouraging businesses to stay closed if they can.

Salon owner Jessica Reese in Columbia, South Carolina, has yet to reopen her salon, preferring to wait for the numbers from Atlanta to come out to understand if the pandemic is dying down. She’s also skeptical of the motives behind lobbying for reopening. “I’m giving it 14 days to see the landscape of the cases,” Reese says. “People I know personally have done the three-hour drive from Columbia to Atlanta to get their nails done since the city was reopened.”

“When tourists flock to reopened areas, it’s a concern nationwide,” said Carrie Henning-Smith, PhD, MPH, MSW, of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, in a May 5 teleconference for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “People come and spread Covid, overwhelming health care systems and all the other resources in those places. Black residents had the highest mortality rates in the country even before Covid-19, and they face a higher risk for all reasons — they’re more likely to work in low-wage jobs, less likely to have reliable access to health care, and more likely to have underlying health conditions.”

“I worry very much that communities of color who’ve already been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 will be affected by the kinds of policies that the governor of Georgia and others are enacting in terms of the kinds of businesses that they’re reopening,” said Harry Heiman, MD, MPH, of Georgia State University’s School of Public Health, to ABC News.

The people most affected have systematically been people of color through the whole process. In New York, 95% of the people fined for social distancing have been Black folks. And in Ohio, Franklin County issued an apology for mask guidelines after critics pointed out that it specifically concerned Black folks. Blacks comprise more than 50% of the confirmed Covid-19 cases within the state of Georgia, with most of them concentrated among the poorest counties in the state. Almost all Covid-19 deaths in St. Louis are Black patients, despite being only 6% of the population. While most of the counties in America with the highest level of infection per capita have White people as their largest ethnic group, the 20 counties with the highest level of deaths are majority African American.

There has been some unexpected grace, however, for salon owners and stylists who had multiple streams of income. For those with product lines pre-pandemic, sales for many have doubled. “I started a product line years ago as a way to make my money work for me. That has kept my business open, and my business has doubled despite there being no clients. I’m going to need more people when we eventually reopen, and a lot of places are going to close down, so I plan on making this a home for other people, too,” says Tashina Green, owner of Poochiez Nail who operates out of Atlanta. Press-on nail sales have exploded, as Allure has reported, and freelance nail artists who have been able to pivot quickly are turning a tidy profit. Still, this does not make up for the systematic failures that disproportionately impact Black, Latino, and Asian wage workers — beauty workers especially, who cannot work without being closer than six feet from their clientele.

I asked Steve Sleeper, executive director of the Professional Beauty Association, if the beauty industry has ever experienced a disaster of this magnitude. “No. The best comparison would be Hurricane Katrina, which impacted a huge part of the country, not just coastal states,” he says. “It has been absolutely dwarfed by this… You cannot even compare it. We have never seen anything like it before.”

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