‘We’re ready to re-open’: For Berkeley hair stylists, it’s been 4 long, hard months of forced closure

Along with nail technicians and massage therapists, hair stylists are among the last group excluded from re-opening during the pandemic.

Scarlet Salon on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley had only been open for a little over two months when shelter-in-place orders came down on March 16, closing all non-essential businesses.

Like many other business owners in the city, Scarlet Salon willingly closed its doors and prepared to wait out the mandate, anticipating maybe a month, or two months without seeing clients. They watched restaurants reopen with takeout and outdoor dining, retail stores resume operations, and stylists eventually welcome back their clients in neighboring counties.

“It’s all so very, very confusing. Being in limbo is definitely very hard emotionally, and stressful financially.” — Hannah Perea

But in Berkeley, where the city estimates there are more than 100 hair salons, their time has still to come. Alameda County salons and barbershops are still closed over four months into the Bay Area’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Along with nail technicians and massage therapists, hair stylists are among the last group excluded from re-opening during the pandemic.

On July 20, the state released updated guidelines allowing outdoor operations for all salons, and local stylists seemed to be included, but they learned from the county the next day that they were still prohibited from operating. Alameda County is on the state watchlist for rising cases of COVID-19, but other regions on the watchlist, like Contra Costa County and Orange County, have allowed stylists to begin outdoor services. Some like San Francisco have delayed.

“It’s all so very, very confusing,” said Hannah Perea, co-owner of Scarlet and former stylist at the now-closed Festoon Salon on MLK Jr. Way. “Being in limbo is definitely very hard emotionally, and stressful financially.”

Berkeley held a roundtable for salons and stylists early in the pandemic, and city leaders have addressed their concerns periodically in meetings and town halls over the last several months. In a recent town hall, Berkeley Public Health Officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez said “salon owners, specifically, are ready”— and indoor operations for salons are the next phase in the city’s reopening roadmap — but due to rising cases locally and in the county, it’s not yet safe to reopen. Positive cases have increased from 1.6% to 2.2% of those tested, which is still well below the state’s 8% maximum target, but the city is on alert about the possibility of further spread.

Amid these constantly changing health conditions, rules and targets, Berkeley salons are fighting to convince local leaders that they’re positioned to operate safely with their customers’ health front of mind.

Salons say they’re better trained in disease prevention than styling hair

During the pandemic, “1,600 hours” has become a common refrain among hair stylists. It’s a reference to the clock-hour requirement stylists need to meet to secure their licensing, including training to minimize the transfer of infectious diseases, bacteriology, disinfection and sanitization and personal hygiene.

“We really are just pressing the issue that our licensing allows us to care for people properly, and this is a mockery,” said Alexandra Sussman of Elixir Salon, who would have been celebrating 18 years of owning the salon this month.

The situation is especially frustrating for Sussman as she stocked up on an expensive air filter and personal protective equipment at a premium in the early months of the pandemic to ensure her salon would be retrofitted for customer safety.

“We paid three to five times for PPE that’s been sitting around collecting dust,” she said.

Sussman advocated for outdoor openings for salons who would benefit from the allowance, but said it’s an unrealistic and unsafe model for most. “No one really wanted to go outside,” she said.  In Berkeley, many salons don’t have parking lots, and others share sidewalk or parking lot space with restaurants, dumpsters and other arrangements that would pose hygiene concerns for cutting hair and doing treatments, not to mention the logistical difficulties of hauling heavy salon chairs outside.

A stylist cutting hair outside wouldn’t be able to carefully manage their environment, and could run into concerns like hair flying into a nearby outdoor diner’s food. They could also inadvertently violate state cosmetology rules and lose their license.

Eric Avirett, owner of Eric Allan salon on Bonita Avenue, also doesn’t have a viable space to operate outdoors. Like Sussman, he also invested in PPE, surgical masks, single-use stick-on masks for customers to ease haircuts, gloves, sanitizers and disinfectant spray, and now he’s sitting on the supplies waiting to reopen.

“There’s a joke – if you’re gonna go to the cosmetology exam – “When in doubt, wash your hands,” he said. “I think the general public actually thinks we learn how to do hair in beauty school.”

Several stylists that Berkeleyside spoke to for this story pointed to their training in health and safety as a reason to reopen, as well as the lack of any nationwide outbreaks that have been connected to salons.

On July 14, the U.S. Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention released an initial report – that has now been widely shared – about two stylists who tested positive for COVID-19 in Missouri but wore masks. None of the 139 clients who they serviced tested positive or exhibited symptoms afterward.

“A hair salon is safer than Trader Joe’s in terms of transmission of virus, it’s safer than a marijuana dispensary, it’s safer than the Tesla factory,” Avirett said. “Unfortunately, no hair salon owner has as much money and power as Elon Musk — so unfortunately we aren’t allowed to open.”

“A hair salon is safer than Trader Joe’s in terms of transmission of virus, it’s safer than a marijuana dispensary, it’s safer than the Tesla factory.” — Eric Avirett

Avirett was able to secure over $75,000 for his business from a combination of local and federal grants, like the Paycheck Protection Program. Though the amount is significant, the stylists renting space at his salon are not technically employees, so he still wasn’t able to help them aside from forgiving rent.

When the shop reopens, he’s going to restructure to an LLC so they can be on his payroll and get some security. After buying PPE and making shop safety improvements, he’s set aside the rest for a large emergency fund to weather reopening and the uncertain days ahead. In the meantime, he’s also trying to share education about financial planning and accounting that he said is missing from the beauty school curriculum.

“In beauty school, you learn how to disinfect, you learn how to sanitize, you learn basically how to prevent the spread of any disease – but what you don’t learn about is business,” he said. 

Some hair stylists have been able to collect unemployment, others say ‘we haven’t even been part of the conversation.’

Salons have different ownership structures, ranging from rental salons, where one person owns the salon and other stylists rent booths to serve clients, to limited liability companies and worker-owned co-operative models. The vast range means many hairstylists, who operate on a freelance basis as gig workers, have found it especially difficult to claim unemployment benefits. Some have been able to secure unemployment and sit tight for reopening, while others are struggling to get grants to keep their businesses open.

Brand new businesses like Scarlet Salon have also found they are ineligible for the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

Peter Thomas, who opened up Peter Thomas Hair in Berkeley in May 1978, said he deliberately didn’t apply for loans because it could jeopardize unemployment income for him and his stylists, who operate as independent contractors. Even though he’s the legal owner of the salon, he earns the same as every stylist at the shop, and is working on transitioning the business into a worker-owner cooperative. The lack of loans means it’s been extremely difficult for him to make rent.

He said it helps that his salon has been established in same location for 42 years and he has longstanding relationships with many people in the city, but the past several months have been an emotionally draining experience.

“I feel confident – maybe I shouldn’t – but I feel confident that we’ll be okay in our particular case,” he said. “I think a lot of salons … I don’t see how they’re going to be able to make it.”

Julie Wood owns The Wood Salon with her wife Helen and said she’s been able to keep her business alive with her personal savings and generous donations from clients. The Wood has a rental structure like most of the salons in Berkeley, Julie said, and she and Helen haven’t been charging their stylists rent – especially those who haven’t been able to get unemployment. As is the case with Peter Thomas, the overhead for the salon is falling entirely on their shoulders.

“We’ve received zero support from the city, we haven’t even been part of the conversation.”— Julie Wood

“We’ve received zero support from the city, we haven’t even been part of the conversation,” she said. “Even the Berkeley Relief Fund, which was like this big promise of helping local businesses, that was devastating for salons … most of the money went to arts and most of the money went to restaurants.”

She and other stylists talked of the frustration of seeing other businesses reopen and get grants — and said they’re glad to see that happen — but they’re equally troubled at seeing their own businesses collapse.

Financial insecurity has forced some stylists to violate state rules and do house visits in order to care for their clients, risking both their health and their clients’ health in order to provide care. Others have shifted to delivering at-home care products and offering advice over the phone.

Cynthia Obleton specializes in hair loss and trichology, a study of the hair and scalp, at Sankofa Braiding and Natural HairCare on Adeline Street. Before the pandemic, she was getting ready to rebrand and release a product she’s been perfecting throughout her 20-year career, but now all her savings and unemployment are being set aside to keep her business afloat.

“African American hair, or any mixed chick hair, can take time, it can take some love, so the [hair] system is designed to keep the hair soft, and moisturized, make it easy to manage,” said Obleton, who’s been selling the product and guiding clients over the phone to help them maintain their hair.

Her clients are loyal and listen to her advice, Obleton said, and her business has been a “Best of Berkeley” award-winner for two years running. Ironically, she now doesn’t have the money to pay for her award plaque. She’s posted screenshots of the award for the time being, and said that’s one of the things she would like to take care of if her salon eventually reopens.

Stylists describe their work as a labor of love, and they’re worried about their clients

Some hair stylists have felt powerless as they watch clients defect to other salons that have been given the go-ahead to re-open. Peter Thomas said he has had to watch some of his clients switch over to salons open in other counties, some of which are less than two miles away from his North Berkeley shop. The rules and red tape seem illogical and frustrating, but he said the loss of relationships is also “profoundly demoralizing.”

“Hairdressing is nurturing work, these relationships with clients, they matter to us,” he said.

Having been trained in health and safety measures, many salons implemented masks and safety procedures more quickly than other businesses, and several said they were very willing to shut down in March — but the lack of consistency across jurisdictions is now leaving them confused and feeling trapped. 

“Trust me, safety is of the utmost importance, Wood said. “I felt it was very important for us to shelter in place and flatten the curve. I’m uber-conscious about everything I do – I haven’t even seen my family.”

The focus on “essential businesses” was clear in the beginning of the pandemic, but now stylists are imploring local leaders to judge them by the same standard as other small businesses that have been allowed to reopen.

“[Our clients] are sitting around doing nothing but looking at themselves in the mirror with their five-, six-month overgrown roots, or five-, six- month overgrown haircut, or maybe they shaved their head in frustration and now it’s growing back and they have a mullet,” Sussman said. “Their wellbeing is also at stake.”

Supriya Yelimeli is Berkeleyside's general assignment reporter. Email: supriya@berkeleyside.com. Twitter: SupriyaYelimeli. Phone: (510) 585-8315.