Before the coronavirus crisis, up to 100 clients a day visited hair salon HC Studio in Brookline, sipping on drinks, flipping through magazines, and chatting with the tight-knit staff as they got their hair cut, styled, or treated.
And even though owner Susan Healy shut down her operations on March 14, she is nonetheless still busy. Among other things, she is removing the coffee station and reading materials, installing plexiglass dividers between salon chairs, and buying face shields.
“I’m creating a brand new business,” Healy said. “We are not going to work the way we used to.”
While there has been a lot of buzz about people desperate to book an appointment at their favorite salon to get their grown out ― and maybe graying ― hair cut, local salon owners say that the salon experience will be very different once shops are allowed to reopen. And many owners aren’t in a hurry to turn the lights back on, even after they are given the OK.
“Nobody that I know is rushing back — some people may talk about it, but do you really want to go back so quickly?" said Erinn Danielle, owner of Simply Erinn’s Unisex Hair Salon. “It is not going to be like that.”
Beyond that, Danielle said, social distancing restrictions, such as limiting the number of people in a salon at one time, could reduce revenue to the point where some businesses won’t survive.
“If you have four chairs, you might only be able to have two, so the income is not going to be the same,” Danielle said. “You just know some salons are not going to be able to come back from this.”
Healy plans to have five chairs in her salon, instead of nine, and will limit how many employees and clients can be in the shop at one time.
“No hairdresser is going to be able to do the volume they used to do, so we are going to have to drive up our prices,” she said. “We want nothing more than for there to be a line out of the door . . . but I don’t see it going back to this fast-paced, busy pulse until we can eradicate this virus.”
To make up for a lack of volume, several salons are planning to increase the number of days they are open and work longer hours. Still, the thought of reopening brings questions about how to limit the spread of the virus in an environment with naturally close contact and tools like blow dryers.
Jessica Thornton closed the Green Room, her one-chair salon in Beacon Hill, on March 14, after deciding it was impossible to ensure safety. The reopening she envisions includes protective equipment, closing the salon for sanitizing in between appointments, and online payments.
Thornton said she hopes clients will find comfort in the safety measures, but she worries some may find them disconcerting.
“It might make someone more stressed and anxious by acknowledging the new reality,” she said.
Some salons, like the Green Room, have the luxury of having already received federal loans, but some of those who haven’t are eager to open their doors to generate desperately needed revenue. (A petition started last week had asked for a “soft opening” of salons on April 27, but nothing came of it.)
Ines Biddy, who owns Biddy Hair Salon in East Boston, said being closed has put her in a difficult situation emotionally and financially.
“Myself and my employees don’t have any income,” she said through her son, Darwin Dubon, who translated from Spanish. "I am concerned for my health and the health of my clients, but I need to generate income to pay my bills.”
Biddy and Dubon have applied for federal and state loans, but they have yet to receive aid.
“Starting in May, if we won’t get loan money, I have to lend money to my mom so she doesn’t lose the hair salon,” Dubon said. “That is the point we are at.”
For now, some salons are scrambling to offer some services online or by delivery in an industry that has historically avoided the digital boom. For example, Thornton recently started selling hair color kits through curbside pickup and walk-in clients through cutting their own hair on Zoom.
“It’s low key, it is not glamorous,” she said. “I’m not doing radical haircuts and saying’ ‘cut off six inches,’ but people are on Zoom in meetings and still front facing.”
At Simply Erinn’s, Danielle is delivering hair products to her clients and offering 30-minute video consultations, but it doesn’t generate nearly enough revenue. She is already dipping into her savings to pay bills.
At V&O Salon on Newbury Street, co-owner Saul Orozco said his salon started selling home-delivery kits, but the sales don’t come close to covering the rent. The future of the shop is in doubt, he said.
“Restaurants can at least do takeout and probably be able to pay their rent, but we have never done takeout for hair,” Orozco said. “We don’t know if we are going to survive and come back from this.”
That’s partly because 30 percent of his clients were students who left Boston after colleges and universities shut down their campuses.
“We probably won’t have enough to pay our employees, and as salon owners, we are not even thinking about paying ourselves,” he said. “I am getting hit with a huge amount of debt."
The hardships at hair salons are felt across the beauty industry, from nail and tanning salons to waxing or threading labs where employees are inevitably physically close to their clients and unable to work during the shutdown of nonessential business.
Prettyology, also on Newbury Street, specializes in eyebrows, permanent makeup, and microblading. The shop is expected to remain closed at least through June.
“People planning to open sometime in mid-May, are setting themselves up for real problems,” said chief operating officer Steve Pennypacker. “To think that society can all of a sudden get close again . . . it is not going to happen.”
How salons recover from the coronavirus shutdown will largely depend on their finances and whether they receive sought-after government loans to prop up operations. Some are busy remodeling and buying protective gear, while others are struggling to pay rent and support their families.
And the reality for many owners is that they might have to close again — no matter how hard they try to keep their salons safe — if the virus makes a rebound. For those already on the edge, that could push them into financial ruin.
“This is not a one-time episode, and I am not seeing anyone in my industry discuss that," Thornton said.