Few professional encounters require prolonged bouts of close contact like appointments at hair or beauty salons. This makes beauty, nail and barbershops potentially high-risk hubs of infection for the coronavirus, which has killed almost half a million people worldwide since the start of this year.
And yet, across the United States, customers are clamoring to fix gray roots, shaggy beards and chipped nails in reopened salons after months in lockdown, despite stark changes to how these services can now be offered. How do you cut hair behind someone’s ears when they’re also wearing a mask? Doesn’t matter, people are doing it.
According to data from Safegraph, a data firm that determines which businesses people visit by tracking aggregated and anonymized cellphone data, foot traffic to hair and beauty salons and barbershops dropped nationwide by 60 percent mid-April.
But by the start of June, as some states started to lift stay-at-home orders, traffic to those salons was just 30 percent lower than a year ago. (Safegraph and other companies that collect mobile phone locations have been criticized over privacy concerns, as location data is often sold to advertisers, retail outlets and even hedge funds seeking insights into consumer behavior.)
The data can’t fully capture where all Americans are going. Safegraph monitors foot traffic data by tracking GPS pings from cellphones inside generated building shapes that have been created with North American Industry Classification System codes. (This is the standard used by federal statistical agencies to classify businesses for collecting and analyzing data related to the nation’s business economy.)
But people who don’t carry phones or who disallow tracking are not counted in these data sets. And, there’s no way to measure who is getting haircuts on the sly, or in a location that isn’t officially classed as a salon. Anecdotal reports of such activity are very high.
In some states, including Nevada (for hair salons) and Montana and Mississippi (for nail bars), foot traffic is already back to levels recorded this time last year.
There’s no question that Americans miss their stylists: Just look at the national turn toward D.I.Y. home beauty since the start of the pandemic and the widespread closure of salons.
According to figures from the research firm Nielsen, hair dyeing products sold online more than doubled, from $50 million to $128 million in sales, in the United States in the 12 weeks since the start of March, as compared to the same period last year. Hair styling items increased by 20 percent and sales of men’s hair clippers (in physical stores) jumped 53 percent.
By contrast, clothing sales both in stores and online have fallen by 89 percent since February, the Commerce Department said in May.
Perhaps our collective desire for a haircut or nice nails isn’t so surprising. For many segments of society, beauty services are central to a sense of identity. And heading back to salons after a collective social trauma could be one way to recover some normalcy.
But it is still a psychological puzzle: Why are we willing to risk illness and death for something seemingly superficial?
In most states, hair salons and beauty parlors reopened earlier than other businesses that were deemed nonessential. But tattoo parlors and tanning salons, which also fall in the same “personal care services” category, have not seen similar levels of returning foot traffic. (Pet grooming services, on the other hand, have seen high levels of foot traffic, in part because in some states the service was deemed an essential business.)
Many hair and beauty salons have elected to stay shut, even in reopened places. Workers say they are nervous about balancing their own health and safety with earning a living, especially because many work on a freelance or contract basis. And, most state regulations call for salon workers to use personal protective equipment (P.P.E.), which some stylists argue should be reserved for medical workers while there are still ongoing national shortages.
“It is scary. I don’t want to get sick,” said Noreen Suchodolski, 30, a hair stylist from Philadelphia who was laid off in March. Every week she takes part in a Zoom call with almost 40 other freelance stylists who used to work at the Norman Dee salon, where they talk about how to make the workplace safe when it reopens.
“I don’t want to go back to work until it is completely safe,” Ms. Suchodolski said. “But at the same time I have now been out of work for almost three months.”
Salons have reopened their doors around the world, including across Europe and in Southeast Asia. Denmark lifted restrictions in mid-April and Switzerland followed suit two weeks later, with Germany and then Spain in May. (In Britain, professional beautification will have to wait until July 4 at the earliest.) As in the United States, European governments say grooming business can resume services only under strict conditions, with fines of hundreds of euros for those who violate them.
In France, for example, where salons reopened May 11, clients must make appointments, wait outside until a service begins and wear closefitting face masks throughout treatments. They can’t read magazines or have hot drinks.
Stylists must change their own masks every four hours and wear plastic visors, and leave every other chair empty. In the case of manicurists, large sneeze guards must separate staff and customers. In Hong Kong, customers must fill in questionnaires upon their arrival to the salon that include details of recent travel, any contact with recent travelers and a temperature recording (which will be kept on file).
Of course, few governments have resources in place to police behavior at salons and to ensure that safety measures are applied. But this spring, such rules became the subject of at least one or two standoffs, with customers demanding the right to get their highlights done and proprietors the right to perform the service.
Shelley Luther, the owner of Salon a La Mode in Dallas, was subject to multiple restraining orders, a $10,000 fine and 48 hours in jail for keeping her doors open.
“I’m still here, I’m standing for your rights and Salon a La Mode is open for business,” she said in a Facebook Live filmed after she was released from jail, prompting the Texas senator Ted Cruz, a Republican, to pop in for a trim. (Both Mr. Cruz and the hair stylist wore masks.) Ms. Luther maintained that her clients should be entitled to make their own choices, and that employees had the right to earn money for their families.
Others — similarly minded but less inclined to break the law — have hired “bootlegger beauticians,” or beauty therapists who make clandestine visits to clients’ houses during lockdown. In some parts of the United States, people have driven hundreds of miles over state lines for a spray tan or roots fix. In Italy, a group of mayors posted videos on social media chastising citizens for visiting salons in secret.
Some hair stylists and beauticians who have been unable to work say they are getting increasingly desperate. Many are self-employed or freelance workers who are on unpaid leave from salons.
For owners, sustaining a business without revenue isn’t the only financial undertaking they face now; before reopening, they must invest in masks, gloves and social distancing measures for themselves and their clients.
In a recent survey of more than 2,500 salons by the Chicago-based hair industry resource Behind the Chair, 14.5 percent of owners said they had enough savings to sustain their businesses through three months without revenue. But about one-third said they could survive only one month. Nearly half said they had no emergency fund at all.
Only a handful of reported cases of Covid-19 have been tied to hair and nail salons thus far, with proprietors attributing this to high adherence levels to sanitation protocols. This includes a cluster outbreak in Hong Kong in May and the first person to contract the coronavirus through community spread in California.
How We Cope
That hair and beauty treatments require intimate contact turns out to be kind of the point.
Amid the roar of competing dryers and happy chatter between trusted stylists and loyal clients is the comfort of community. Many beauticians and hairdressers guide clients through major life events — births, marriages, divorces and deaths — over many years, all while striving to make people look and feel their best.
“Beauty services create a shared sense of belonging and contact and we aren’t often acknowledged for the vital role we play in terms of positive mental health in society,” said Sharmadean Reid, the founder of Beautystack, a British booking app for beauty treatments.
Grooming can also have a powerful effect on moods; after all, it’s an act that connects humans to other creatures in the animal kingdom. People lead ever more hectic and busy lives; for many, a scheduled hour each week of being physically looked after becomes an important form of emotional self-care and the only time they have for themselves.
It’s a time of intense loneliness in the Western world. According to a 2018 AARP Foundation survey, roughly one-third of older adults in the United States are socially isolated, a state that is linked to increased health risks, including heart disease, cancer, depression, diabetes and suicide. A routine manicure or blow dry is often a rare moment of intimacy and human touch on which people had come to rely.
According to the psychotherapist Susie Orbach, a major motivation for salon visits is the stronger sense of their bodies and identities people can get through grooming.
“Many people, particularly women, are so accustomed to thinking about how we represent ourselves publicly that it then becomes structured into our own sense of self,” Ms. Orbach said. “That can be very jarring to lose, even when we are stuck at home with nobody to see us.”