Salons assemble their game plans

Owners and stylists brainstorm safety procedures for reopening a high-touch industry.
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Some salons are considering partitions between chairs, mandatory mask-wearing for stylists and mandatory or recommended mask-wearing for clients, appointment-only services (no walk-ins) and a host of other precautions.Courtesy iStock

Everyone wants a haircut, but at what cost?

When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on May 7 unveiled her six-phase MI Safe Start plan for reopening the Michigan economy — a timeline with restrictions in place designed to prevent a second wave of COVID-19 cases — beauty salons didn’t see their industry specifically listed in the plan.

Some salons and barber shops were waiting to see how things played out, with a handful of others reporting they would resume business before being given the all-clear, defying state law and risking shutdown and misdemeanor charges.

Stylists and owners from a pair of local salons were more circumspect, speaking to the Business Journal about the waiting game in late May. They still had not heard word from Whitmer or the Michigan Board of Cosmetology about the reopening timeline and what safety rules would be in place. As of May 19, Whitmer had signaled to the press that it was “very unlikely” salons would be allowed to start making appointments within the early phases of the economy reopening because of contact risks that need careful mitigation.

That ambiguity wasn’t stopping local stylists from preparing while they waited for the OK to reopen.

“It’s like when you’re getting married and you are planning a wedding. You do everything you possibly can do, and then you have to wait until the very last minute to hurry up and do everything else,” said Amanda Baird, co-owner and stylist at Salon Re:, 940 E. Fulton St. in Grand Rapids.

Baird and her co-owner, Joy Anderson, were eying guidelines from other states — including a document from the Georgia Board of Cosmetology published ahead of salons reopening in that state on April 24 — to help them understand what similar restrictions Michigan might put in place so they could be ready.

The duo speculated the safety restrictions for salons could include mandatory mask-wearing for stylists and mandatory or recommended mask-wearing for clients; spacing of stations 6 feet apart; appointment-only services (no walk-ins); limited capacity of clients, which means no double-booking of clients (e.g., one client getting a haircut while another client has color processing); requirement of single-use capes for clients; wearing of full-protection smocks by stylists; extra disinfecting of each station between clients; sneeze guards/partitions between stations and shampoo bowls; more frequent handwashing, etc.

Anderson said the salon already has ordered more capes so every client can have their own, and the washer probably will need to run several times a day to cycle them back into the rotation after a thorough cleaning. This is a change from the previous practice of each stylist having their own supply of capes and usually only swapping them out every two or three haircuts (unless they get dirty sooner) while using fresh neck strips for each client.

She said Baird and another stylist were working on building and putting up sneeze guards between the shampoo bowls, and both co-owners have been talking with a group of salon owners around the state to learn where to get sanitizers, gloves, masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) in light of the current shortages.

They purchased a contact-less thermometer they plan to use for screenings at the entrance, as well as sterilization ovens to clean hair tools in between clients.

“There are several things that we’re doing just to have things ready to go once we’re given the green light. But a lot of it is just a waiting game and deciding what is necessary and what’s not,” Anderson said.

Baird said it has been “frustrating” as business owners, needing to front the money to buy all of these extra supplies while no revenue is coming in.

“Especially without getting a grant or a loan, every penny counts,” she said.

Anderson said it’s looking like stylists will have to work harder to follow all of the restrictions but will make less money because they won’t be able to have as many appointments per day.

Kelly Buist has been a chair-rental/independent contractor stylist at Salon Re: since it opened over a decade ago.

She said she has been brainstorming an “abbreviated service menu” that could include offerings such as dry cuts; clients with thicker hair coming with wet hair and leaving after their cut with wet hair; roots-only color application where the client would go home to shampoo and dry their hair; dropping blow-outs from the menu; not offering perms (which some older clients still get); doing basic maintenance like trims instead of big style changes; and possibly forgoing bang trims, since they require closer face-to-face contact.

“I know all of my clients’ hair well enough that I could probably help them navigate what would be best for them,” she said. “Part of it is just having people spend less time in the chair.”

Buist said she began planning the abbreviated service menu after reading coverage from the New York Times as well as a white paper titled “The Risks – Know Them – Avoid Them” from Erin Bromage, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, about the risk of transmission in various types of public spaces.

“Airflow has a lot to do with it, and how close you are to a person, but also how long you are in a space,” she said. “I don’t know if all of my clients will be concerned about those things or know about them, but that’s part of my thinking, is offering people the possibility of just being in there for less time.”

Buist said she also would like to see the salon add a more sheltered station in the back for clients in high-risk categories to get their hair done away from the rest of the customers.

She said she plans to adjust prices to account for the abbreviated services, and she believes the amount of catchup she will have to do when the salon reopens might be able make up for the lower prices — initially. But the higher overhead costs in supplies and reduction of clients per day will likely mean an income drop for her over the long term as the pandemic continues, she said.

“That’s another level of concern of mine, too,” Buist said.

Kara Cole Turner is a chair-rental stylist at Philip Anthony Salon, 3655 Lake Eastbrook Blvd. SE in Grand Rapids.

She said the stylists at her workplace already have committed to wearing face shields and single-use smocks, and the salon already has more than 6 feet of space between stations. It will be further minimizing person-to-person contact by closing the waiting area and requiring clients to wait in their cars before their appointments, texting them when it’s time to come in. Clients will not be allowed to bring anyone else with them to their appointment — “no children, no spouses, no friends. It will just be themselves and the service provider,” she said.

Cole Turner said she has 15 years of experience as a dry cut stylist, so that service won’t need adjusting.

The salon plans to continue following state board sanitation requirements, but at an enhanced level, she said.

“We’ll have sanitation products, Barbicide at every station in a spray bottle, as well as a tub for everything that the client touches,” she said. “If it doesn’t fit in the tub, it gets sprayed down after. Everything will go straight from the client into the container and then from the container to the washer and dryer. We’ll probably be slotting at least 15 to 20 minutes for cleaning between each client, as well,” she said.

She said whatever implements can’t be sanitized will have to be disposable.

Cole Turner said she currently only double-books clients who know each other. Still, she anticipates that will mean about two fewer paying clients per day, which will cut into her revenue — and she won’t be able to work longer hours because she is a mom of five children and has to go home at a certain time.

Even so, she said the most important thing is the clients’ safety.

“We want them to know that we are taking every precaution we can to make them feel safe, and that there’s definitely no obligation. If they’re still feeling uncertain or feeling not sure, we definitely support them staying home. We’re not trying to rope anybody in to coming to get their hair done just because we’re having a hard time with our financial situation,” she said.

“We want our clients to know we love them and support them and that we’re going to do our very best.”

Cole Turner said she believes many of the changes brought on by the pandemic will be incorporated into continuing practice.

“I think we’re going to see a huge change in the industry as a whole, for good. Change is always a difficult adjustment, but we’re an industry that is just very loving and caring, and we love to be around people and see people, and we’ll find a way to come through this on the other side.” 

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