Salons, Personal Care Services Got a Bad Rap in Pandemic, Industry Members Say

Workers in the beauty industry generally usually celebrate the holidays with more work. In a regular year, a surge of bookings can double or triple the income of a hairstylist.

But, in 2020, the most glamorous time of year—a mainstay of the $50 billion beauty industry—lost its verve when California ordered another lockdown in early December, slashing earnings for hairstylists, manicurists, aestheticians, massage therapists, plastic surgeons, barbers, herbalists and massage therapists.

Last month’s news of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s relaxation of pandemic-related business restrictions brought some relief. But, after nearly a year of abrupt closures, cautious re-openings and a steady stream of bad press, stylists still struggle. 

In addition to the closures, safety regulations have greatly restricted the number of clients a stylist can serve on a work day.

“I was happy to be able to make half of what I would normally make during the holidays,” says Shelby Neubauer, the owner of Sparrow Hair in downtown Santa Rosa.

Still, the most frustrating part of the most recent shutdown for many workers is that the state failed to prove that the beauty industry posed a greater risk than retail stores and shopping malls, many of which remained open throughout the holidays.

In a lawsuit filed Jan. 21 against Newsom and other state officials, the Professional Beauty Federation of California (PBFC) argues California singled out the industry because of its lack of lobbying power.

“The personal-services sectors are the quintessential small-business sectors,” PBFC attorney Fred Jones said in a recent phone call, “and yet, because we don’t have the same clout as Hollywood or big business, we have become the sacrificial lambs to the Covid gods.”

It’s a sacrifice borne disproportionately by minorities, he points out.

The state’s assiduous focus on salons and cosmetic services has hammered an industry composed overwhelmingly of women, immigrants and members of the LGBTQ community. Of PBFC’s 621,000 dues-paying licensees, Jones says, more than 80 percent are female and 75 percent are first-generation immigrants.

“This is the profession that this governor has sacrificed,” he says. “That’s not very politically correct, is it?”

Rachel De La Montanya, who currently works at Cheveux Studio in Corte Madera, says it was disheartening to see that many larger retailers like Nordstrom and Sephora were allowed to remain open while small businesses in the beauty industry, which follow stringent safety guidelines even in normal times, were restricted.

“This industry is made up of women who generally went into it so they could have some level of freedom to be able to make a living and provide for their family,” says De La Montanya. “The beauty of the industry is that it allows you to set your schedule and still make a decent living.”

In Jones’ telling, the industry’s financial woes began when Gov. Newsom blamed a Northern California nail salon for the first known case of community spread of the novel coronavirus. PBFC, reporters and other industry groups demanded data to support the assertion. State officials never provided that.

Newsom’s claim proved baseless. But the damage was done.

“What he didn’t realize was that he was throwing all this shade at our industry in the minds of Californians,” Jones says. “As a result, we’ve had a cumulative seven months of lockdowns. This is our third reopening after our third closure since March, and every time we reopen, there are less clients coming back because they’re picking up the message that this industry is unsafe.”

While state officials and their local counterparts repeated the narrative of the dangers inherent to salons, research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggested otherwise. The study published last summer found face masks may have prevented a pair of Covid-positive Missouri hairstylists from spreading the virus to as many as 140 clients.

Missouri’s Springfield-Greene County Health Department, which led the investigation, determined that policies requiring people to cover mouths and noses and the salon’s strict sanitation policies played a substantial role in curbing what could have been a huge outbreak.

Jen Erickson, founder and CEO of Silicon Valley Apprenticeship Barbering/Cosmetology and a 25-year industry veteran, says clients should rest assured that salons are safe to patronize. Passing the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology test requires 1,600 class-hours—about 1,000 more than needed to become a cop—and fluency in sterilization and cross-contamination.

“With the pandemic,” she says, “a lot of us even went above and beyond, retrofitting salons to make things safe, spending money even though we weren’t making any.”

For the first time, Erickson says, she took out a business loan—a 30-year mortgage to sustain her training program.

“I’m not making any money right now,” she says. “I’m trying to work with students to find them other places to work, but it’s tough. Salons have shut down. I’ve lost apprentices—almost a third of them got pregnant and quit. And me, myself, I’m at a standstill.”

If public health officials produced data that showed salons as high-risk for coronavirus outbreaks, that would be one thing, Jones says. But he has yet to see any from the state or local governments. What few numbers are available seem to back his suspicions about the shutdowns being less science-and-data-based than Newsom lets on.

Statistics released last month by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office show that 74 percent of Covid cases for which there’s contact-tracing data available were attributed to household gatherings. Bars and restaurants accounted for just 1.43 percent of the spread. Salons and personal care services, just 0.14 percent.

Jones wants to see similar California data.

The PBFC lawsuit, which includes restaurant owners as plaintiffs, argues that lobbying money influenced the state’s double standard for certain industries. When California initially defined what work it considered essential enough to continue at the start of the pandemic, it excluded Hollywood studios. A month later, the lawsuit points out, a new state order deemed “the entertainment industries, studios, and other related establishments” to be essential “provided they follow Covid-19 public health guidance around physical distancing.”

Newsom’s press secretary, Daniel Lopez, says the governor stands by the state’s public health mandates.

“We will vigorously defend against any lawsuit challenging public health orders implemented to preserve the ability of our medical system to provide needed care to all Californians,” he says. “We are confident the court will uphold the order, as have numerous courts that have recently considered similar challenges.”

Additional reporting by Will Carruthers.

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