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Once, Mid City Salon stylists greeted their clients with a big hug and settled them down to flip through magazines while waiting for their hair appointments.
These days, workers at the downtown Salt Lake City salon are saying hello by offering customers a complimentary mask and a pump of hand sanitizer before leading them to a sitting area without any reading material.
“It’s kind of scary because we don’t really have the luxury of being shut down,” said Alyssa Brown, whose mother has owned the business for 22 years. “This is an expensive space to lease, and so we can’t really close our doors until we have to.”
But everything else around the Broadway business seems like it’s going into hibernation to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Public schools and universities across the state have moved their classes online. Utah’s restaurants have closed their dining rooms, and movie theaters have gone dark. People no longer can congregate in groups of 10 or more.
Brown said she’s felt her profession has been “forgotten” in official conversations about how to cope with the pandemic, even though social distancing is virtually impossible between a stylist and client. The Utah Department of Health hasn’t yet put out any guidance for hair salons or barbershops or considered closing them, according to an agency spokesman.
Salt Lake County has advised salons, spas and cosmetologists to “implement social distancing and exclude symptomatic workers from the establishment.” The county calls for maintaining a 6-foot distance between each customer in a business, but the guidance states that contact between a client and service provider is acceptable as long as neither is sick and both wash their hands frequently.
Brown said Mid City Salon is taking precautions to protect clients and stylists alike. They’ve been wiping down door handles, blow dryers, spray bottles and chairs after every haircut, she said. The salon has largely stopped doing facials or manicures and is discouraging clients from bringing companions to an appointment.
“Yesterday, we had a husband,” said Teresa Bowman, owner of Mid City and Brown’s mother. “And we asked if he could go ... do something.”
And they have allowed salon workers to stay home if they’re uncomfortable, Brown said, and cutting them some slack on their booth fees if they’re unable to pay.
Other salons and barbershops are declining to accept new clients, while some have closed down entirely because of public safety concerns.
Christi Wedig, who owns Blues Barbershop in Holladay, said she and her husband came up with a safety plan for providing haircuts — they had even ordered dozens of capes so they could use a brand new one for each haircut.
But they ultimately decided the risk of spreading the disease was too great and closed up shop on Monday.
“The reality,” Wedig said, “is a barber is as close to a person as a doctor or a nurse.”
That’s why Jackie Grant, a Cedar City resident, ended up canceling her hair appointment last week. Instead, she trimmed her own hair after studying YouTube tutorials about how to add layers to her bob.
She said she was pleased with the results, especially compared to when she was doing fieldwork in Honduras and resorted to cutting her hair with a pocketknife.
“I’m a science professor, so people expect me to have bad hair and that helps,” she joked in an email.
Grant said her whole family is in a self-imposed quarantine, and she wouldn’t advise anyone to visit a salon right now.
However, the decision to close is a difficult one for small-business owners, especially when there’s little sense of when reopening will be safe.
While most salon stylists are independent contractors, Wedig said her barbershop employs about 15 people, and the decision to close meant laying them off. The barbershop’s staff will be able to apply for unemployment benefits, but Wedig said she and her husband will have to survive without income for now.
Wedig said she’s tried to persuade Utah lawmakers and officials to close salons and barbershops, arguing that the close contact required for a haircut is unsafe during the pandemic. Other states, such as Washington and Kentucky, have already shut down these businesses, she noted.
“Each one of the barbers on our team cuts between 10 to 15 people per day,” she said. “If you start doing the math ... one person has the ability on their own to infect countless people.”