Pandemic Chronicles: safety is the kindest cut

Barbers, stylists work at steady clip, but fear another shutdown

PHOTO/RALPH BELLEZA: Barber Tim Cook cuts a client's hair at Derby Supply Company barber shop in downtown Reno.

Call it “shear” terror. Who would have thought that barber shops and hair salons (other than Sweeny Todd’s fictional tonsorial parlor & pie bakery) could be considered scary?

Then along came COVID-19 and social distancing. The virus is transmitted person-to-person. People who cut hair and provide other personal services have no option but to get very close to their clients. In mid-March, Nevada shops closed for seven weeks. As businesses opened up in May after the shutdown and virus cases tapered off, people flocked back to the barber and salon chairs. With cases now rising in Nevada, some patrons are getting nervous. Barbers, stylists and other personal service providers worry about another business shutdown.

“The pandemic has been hard on barbers,” said Elliott Malin, executive director of the Nevada Barbers’ Guild. “Typically, they are independent contractors, and that’s true for the stylists in salons as well. Contractors have no employer-based health insurance and aren’t eligible for regular unemployment payments.”

He said he knows a barber who lost his home during the closures. “He and his wife, kids and the dog moved in with his parents,” Malin said. “With no money coming in, how do they pay their bills? With no health insurance, what if they get COVID? I know they’ve been ecstatic to be back in the shops. One thing I’ve learned about the barbers in Nevada is that they are resilient. They made it work.”

PHOTO/NATIONAL ARCHIVES: An open air barber shop at the University of California, Berkeley, during the 1918-1919 pandemic.

The Barbers’ Guild, which lobbies for the profession, represents some of Nevada’s 1,400 licensed barbers. By law, only barbers are allowed to display the striped barber’s pole. That symbol dates back to the Middle Ages, when barbers were also surgeons who practiced such skills as wound dressing, blood-letting and occasional amputations. Barbers are regulated by the state Barbers’ Health and Sanitation Board. The Nevada Board of Cosmetology licenses nearly 35,000 beauty services professionals, including 780 hair stylists.

Both boards imposed tighter sanitation requirements when those businesses reopened. The shops and salons were given 18 hours warning when they had to close and two day’s notice when they could again open.

“Sanitation and cleanliness is the No. 1 job and it’s important to know what they’ve done to make it even safer for customers to be in there,” Malin said. “The sanitation was superior before, now it’s even above that.” He said shops’ regular customers were the first to return. “If (the business) has been there for awhile, the clientele stays loyal,” he said. “That’s a testament to what the barber brings to that relationship. They are part of the rhythm of someone’s life. It shows just how important the barber is to the men and women they serve. (Going there) helps you decompress.”

Like all other businesses, shops and salons have had to make adjustments to just about everything they do to keep making a living during the pandemic.

Vinnie Gravallese, owner of the Derby Supply Co. in downtown Reno, said his barber shop has seven barbers, including himself. Before the shutdown five barbers would each serve about 15 customers per day. “When we closed we had to call and reschedule everybody and we had appointments set for weeks,” he said. Unlike in many shops, his barbers are employees rather than independent contractors. They were eligible for regular unemployment payments.

Today, Derby Supply has five barbers on the floor and leaves two chairs unoccupied to make space between clients. Gravallese said the shop exceeds the new state safety regulations for barber shops and hair salons. “We’re taking this extremely seriously,” he said. “We’ve put in a wide, six-foot-tall Plexiglas shield at the front desk and we have two employees stationed there, one of whom is sanitizing and cleaning constantly.”

State regulations require barbers to wear face masks, but customers can take theirs off when getting haircuts.  “Here, from the get-go, we’ve required customers to keep their masks on the whole time they are here, with the exception of beard trims,” said Gravallese, who said he descends from a long line of barbers and hair stylists. “We’re not offering shaves right now because the (virus case) numbers are going haywire again.”

When the lockdown ended, the pent-up demand for haircuts began, he said. “When we opened again, we had the first two weeks scheduled within an hour,” he said. “People just needed haircuts so bad… We not only follow the rules to a T, we exceed them.”

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Barber Mark Cordano prepares to cut RN&R editor Frank X. Mullen’s mane at the Gentlemen’s Barber Shop in Reno last week. It was his first haircut of the year.

My hair, unlike the rest of me, has aged well. It still grows as fast as cheat grass on a Nevada hillside in early spring. It was already long in March. By May it approached Prince Valiant length, on its way to Louis XIV tresses. It was a royal pain. I called the Gentlemen’s Barber Shop in Northwest Reno. Appointments are required. Seating is provided outside for early arrivals. Barbers and customers were masked. The chairs were far apart. All precautions were followed. It was a weight off my noggin, both literally and figuratively. 

  – Frank X. Mullen, Reno News & Review editor

Shutdown unkindest cut of all

Terriejeane, owner of Reno’s Local Hairstyling, said the first month and a half after reopening “was really jamming.” She started her career as an independent stylist working at a franchise salon in Truckee, Calif., cutting hair on 26 heads each day. She has owned her salon at 800 South Meadows Parkway in Reno for five years.

Her shop is a separate studio within Simplique Spa and Suites, where independent hair stylists,  massage therapists, nail artists and other beauty professionals lease space.  “We’re all trying to do the right thing, keeping everybody safe,” Terrijeane said. “It’s kind of a tumultuous time. I’ve got just one chair that’s kind of helpful in the COVID situation, where people may feel more comfortable being the only client at a time.”

Lately, some clients are calling to postpone appointments. “We’re down about 30 percent,“ she said. “California has closed their salons again and we seem on the same path as the states where it’s spiking. We’re bracing for another closure. I’m just hoping we’re not going to close up again.”

She said after multiple applications for unemployment insurance, she was approved for Pandemic Unemployment Act coverage. About half of her payments were made without the extra $600 added to claims during the first months of the pandemic. Simplique Spa and Suites didn’t charge full rent during the shutdown and that helped, Terriejeanne said. Some of her clients have been going to her for 30 years, she said, and she planned on staying in business for at least another six years or so.

“I’m biding my time,” she said. “I can get my butt in here and work and get people in the chair, but to what end if we keep getting closed down?” She said she has been saving for retirement. “That was my plan,” she said. “Now my plan is to hold on to that savings. It’s been a wonderful business; I adore it. I’m just hoping that it comes back kind of what it was before. I know there will be life after COVID, but when and what is the question.”

PHOTO/RENO’S LOCAL HAIRSTYLING: Stylist Terriejeane clips a client at her shop, Reno’s Local Hairstyling.

Jessika Medina has been a stylist for a year. The Carson City High School alumna graduated from Paul Mitchell cosmetology school in Reno last year and works at Outsiders Hair Studio at 18B Winter St. in Reno. She was heading for Oregon for a week-long visit with a friend when the shutdown hit in March. She quarantined there for about nine weeks and got a job as a security guard and maid at a motel. When she returned, the studio had changed.

“We’ve got eight people and before the pandemic, everyone had their own schedule,” Medina said. “You might work a lot one day and not the next. Now we have four people at a time, with three empty chairs over the seven stations.” Everyone is masked. Blow-drying is banned. Only customers are allowed inside. It’s been, she said, like “being on overdrive.” She reassures any nervous clients about safety. “We don’t want them to feel scared or discouraged,” she said.

The pandemic also changed Medina’s living arrangements. Before the outbreak, she was living with her grandparents. Her job in Oregon allowed her to save for her own place. “With COVID happening, I couldn’t really risk being around people all day and maybe bringing the virus home to my grandparents,” she said. “I had to try to get a place as soon as possible for their sake.”

Medina said she has a passion for her job, but hasn’t decided if it will evolve into a lifelong career. She said the pandemic has taught her something that she hadn’t realized even as a third-generation hair stylist: “I understand how much the human touch means to people,” she said. “It was missing for months when people were quarantined. I do a hair wash now and I can feel people’s tension just wash away. They kind of feel like a new person when they come up.”

“It’s made us have a different view of how important our job can be when it comes to someone’s mental health. It makes me proud to do what we do in this industry. It’s a lot more than just making people pretty.”

— Jessika Medina, Outsiders Hair Studio, Reno.

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