Coronavirus quarantine has forced some people to take beauty routines like gel manicures and dying hair into their own hands.


Robert Koske tried his best to stay ahead of the coronavirus, wiping down the door handles of his Sarasota, Florida, salon with bleach and making sure hand sanitizer was always nearby. 

“We tried as much as we could to keep this thing at bay,’’ says Koske, owner of the Running With Scissors Hair Salon, who says the days before Easter would typically be his busiest, but in recent weeks the number of customers slowed to a trickle. 

On April 2, the salon had to shut down because of a statewide order. And Koske is now trying to piece together loans to make ends meet.

“My job is hands-on,’’ he says, rattling off his bills from rent to electricity. “I need income.”

For millions of Americans, a trip to the barbershop or manicurist is as routine as a run to the grocery store. But that was before COVID-19, when many of those businesses had to shut their doors to slow the spread of the potentially deadly virus. 

Now, weeks into mandatory shutdowns and orders to stay home, hairstylists, manicurists and masseuses are among the many personal care entrepreneurs struggling financially, tapping into their savings and applying for federal loans.

They worry that concerns about the virus may have a long-lasting impact on how they make a living. Customers may be wary of getting too close, no matter how badly they need their nails buffed or hair done. And some professionals admit they’d feel the same.

“I feel we would need to take necessary precautions with gloves and masks,” says Alex Teyf, co-owner of Gino’s Classic Barbershoppes in Atlanta, adding that it will take months for him to feel comfortable again. “It’s … surreal.”

Dwindling business, then a shutdown 

Koske says at this time of year, customers would typically flow in to his salon eight to 10 hours a day. But in March “our business was starting to slow,” he says. “People were canceling appointments … We only had a couple of clients who wanted to come in.’’

When Florida officials ordered nonessential businesses to shut their doors as of April 3, Koske, who’s been in business since 2004, suddenly found himself out of work, along with a nail technician and three fellow stylists who work in his shop. 

Now he is trying to get a loan through the Payment Protection Plan program that is part of the federal government’s $2.2 trillion stimulus package. 

“I do have a little money saved, but not much,” Koske says, adding that his landlord has given him a one-month abatement on rent. “It could get me to the first or second week of May.”

Among small business owners, 71% fear they’ll never get back on their feet in the wake of the economic crisis sparked by COVID-19, according to a survey by LendingTree.

Nearly one out of every two entrepreneurs said they’ve taken on debt to survive, while 34% say they have tried to get aid but were not approved, and 69% say they do not have enough money to keep operating for another 90 days.

“Small businesses in virtually every industry and state have been hit hard by the coronavirus, and some will never reopen,” Hunter Stunzi, senior vice president of small business and investments at LendingTree, said in a statement. “Unfortunately attempts by lawmakers to clear a path for rapid funding have so far fallen short, as too many businesses are unsure or unable to access funds fast enough to save jobs.”

Alex Teyf and his family shuttered their trio of barbershops in mid-March, long before they were ordered to, intending to give them a deep cleaning then reopen within three days.

“We’ve been extending every week now since then,” he says of the shutdown. “I feel like I’m in Alfred Hitchcock’s version of ‘Groundhog Day.”’

If rapid testing for the coronavirus isn’t available whenever they do reopen, Teyf says he believes his more than two dozen employees should wear protective gear, though “cutting hair with gloves isn’t very easy,” he says. 

But Teyf says they need to get back to work.  He filed for unemployment on his employees’ behalf, and they have started receiving benefits, but the maximum state payment of $365 a week equals only about 20% of their usual pay.

“What really hits home every day is that I’ve got a staff of over 25 people that I’m concerned about putting food on the table,” Teyf says. “They need to work, want to work. There’s demand for our services, so it’s frustrating.”

But is it safe?

Kyle Hargis, who hasn’t had a hair cut in three weeks, says fears of COVID-19 won’t keep him from hopping back into a barber’s chair. 

“I would go right now if I could,’’ says Hargis, who lives in Las Vegas and works at one of the local hotels.“It’s just like anything else. You could be scared to go to the grocery store, but you’ve got to get food … I’m not going to be scared of life because of this.’’

Others worry that even if local officials give businesses an all-clear, how safe will it be to be touched by a manicurist, masseuse or make up artist?  

“Any contact you make has a potential for you contracting something that they may have,” says Philip M. Tierno, Jr., professor of microbiology and pathology at New York University’s School of Medicine, who noted that 25% of those who contracted coronavirus got it from people who never knew they had it. “So yes, there is a risk.”

He feels that masks and other safeguards should have been standard practice even before the outbreak. “We make each other sick from respiratory infections simply by coughing, talking, sneezing into the face of a person,” he says. “Even breathing into the face of a person can transmit organisms.”

Cynthia Bourghol says those are exactly her concerns.

“It’s probably going to be anywhere from three to six months for me to feel comfortable,” said Bourghol, a college student in Costa Mesa, California, who used to get her nails done every three weeks, but hasn’t had a manicure or hair treatment since before Valentine’s Day. “I’ve decided not to do my hair (professionally) … and I removed all nail polish. I’m natural for now.” 

She’s dying her own hair for the first time.  But she’ll likely visit her hairdresser sooner than she will her nail salon.

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“The fact they’re touching our bare hands with their bare hands just makes me very uncomfortable,” Bourghol says of getting a manicure. She also fears being in busy spaces where people could have the virus and not know it. “That’s pretty alarming to me.”

New businesses in peril 

As an acupuncturist, Chaiya Sherman’s practice in Seattle, Washington, is considered essential. But she stopped going to the office weeks ago when clients stopped coming.

“It’s taken me a year to build a practice, and in a month I watched it fall apart,” says Sherman, who went from seeing a record number of clients in February to watching her patient list drop precipitously over the next three weeks. Finally “I was like I might as well just go home and take care of my kids.”

Sherman used up her savings last month and has filed for unemployment. For now, she is relying on her family for financial help.

While her decision to return to work will depend largely on what state officials say, she hopes to resume seeing clients in May and she believes they will come back.

“I think in general they will trust us to make the right decision,” she says of herself and her peers. But Sherman admits it may take a little time to feel at ease.

“Personally, I want to see widespread testing,” she says “We need to just protect each other at this point.”

Sam Johnson was also just getting her business on its feet when a statewide order in March forced her to shutter her hair salon in South Orange, New Jersey.

“Literally, it was my (one) month anniversary when they told us I had to close down,” she says. “I’m not getting any news on when we’re going to open back up, so now I’m getting nervous.”

To stay afloat, she’s relying on savings, applying for grants, and looking at launching a gift card program where clients prepay for appointments.

“I put all my money into getting this salon up and running with no loans or grants,” she says. “Now I’m here applying … I got the place up and running (and) I really don’t want to lose it.’’

Not essential, but necessary  

Brittney Chin says she understood why state officials ordered her nail salon in Chino, California, to close late last month. But she says her service is more necessary than some might realize.

“I know that nails to the general public (aren’t) essential,” she says, but “I do what I do because it makes people happy. It gives them confidence. It’s time they get to get away from their family, or issues going on in their lives. It’s a safe space.”

Chin’s filed for unemployment, but she is faring financially better than some other small business owners because she still lives at home with her parents. 

For now, she’s spending much of her time shaping and painting press on nails for clients, leaving them on her doorstep for pick up, and even sending a pair to a customer in New York who follows her on Instagram and wanted them for her birthday.  

“I’m not charging as much as I used to make per hour working in a salon,” she says, “but it’s something I want to be able to offer my clients. Some don’t have jobs … and I know things are difficult right now.’’

A new normal

While testing for COVID-19 still isn’t widespread, a second wave of checks to determine who’s developed antibodies to the virus would be necessary for large numbers of people to safely return to their routines, says Tierno.

“I think everybody is a little bit more aware than they ever were before,” Tierno says. “When you hear the number of people that died, or the number of people who could have died … that’s going to be indelible. That’s going to be with all of us for our lifetime.’’

Even if there’s no immediate return to normal, Sam Johnson is preparing to get back to business. When she reopens, she’ll continue to wear a mask and refrain from crowding the salon to make her clients feel comfortable.

“After this is over, I’m not going to be afraid to go back out there and do hair,” she says. “I’m going to try to rest up right now and I will be ready and excited when we do open back up.”

Contributing: Michael Braga

Follow Charisse Jones on Twitter @charissejones

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