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Salons, barbershops grapple with reopening rules, while others in the beauty industry wait

Owners say they expect fewer customers, question state’s safety guidelines

Boston salon owner Vanna Vu has installed plexiglass partitions.
Boston salon owner Vanna Vu has installed plexiglass partitions.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Among the shaggy-headed masses, there was a collective sigh of relief when Governor Charlie Baker gave hair salons and barbershops the go-ahead to resume business on May 25 in the state’s first phase of reopening.

But those who have booked appointments for next week should anticipate the bare minimum: no more packed waiting rooms, no magazines or beverages, and chairs separated by 6 feet. And since everyone will have to wear a mask, the time-honored barbershop chat might be on the short side.

For some hair salon owners, Monday’s announcement was fraught. Many are concerned about the health risks and frustrated that the state’s safety protocols aren’t more comprehensive.

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Meanwhile, owners of nail salons, day spas, and tattoo and piercing studios were upset that they cannot open until later, in phase two of the state’s plan.

Hair salons and barbershops that plan to open next week point out the guidelines do not specify a capacity limit or mandate the taking of clients’ temperatures, and some protocols are listed as considerations, not as requirements.

“I felt jittery and afraid,” Jessica Thornton, who owns a one-chair Beacon Hill salon, said Tuesday. “Constitutionally, it makes sense to make this [be] up to the individual. But from a health perspective, I find it absolutely terrifying. I think the recommendations are so vague.”

Hairstylist Cathleen Foster didn’t anticipate going back to work at Salon Capri on Newbury Street so soon. Now she expects to see three to five clients a day, instead of 10, while wearing numerous protective layers.

“I’m shocked we were chosen before restaurants, quite honestly, because we are touching people,” Foster said. “Is beauty essential? I guess it is in the city of Boston.”

Some stylists who are treated as independent contractors — which means they rent stations in salons — may be even less likely to rush back. They were just recently allowed to file for unemployment benefits and may not have enough business at first to justify giving up the generous aid the federal government is providing during the pandemic.

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But while hair salons can reopen, others in the beauty industry must wait at least three more weeks for phase two before seeing clients.

At Treasured Hands in the Back Bay, nail salon owner Vanna Vu said that she could not imagine why a hair salon or barbershop would be one of the first businesses to reopen.

“Talking about distancing, the hairdresser cannot distance from the client,” she said.

Vu said she’s more than happy to wait — even if it means she and her 14 employees would remain unemployed. She’s been busy, though, installing plexiglass dividers at manicure stations and buying face guards for her staff. Even before the pandemic, they wore masks and gloves.

“Three more weeks of hell is better than three weeks of coronavirus,” Vu said. “I’m 60 years old — I have to keep everyone healthy before I think of losing revenue.”

Some salon owners also warned that they may have to increase prices to pay for safety equipment.

“To open in the way that I am — for that to be sustainable — I had to raise my prices,” Thornton said. “Health and wellness is going to come at a massive premium, and if clients cannot afford the premium I think it is going to put some businesses and employees in dangerous positions.”

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Julie Michaud, chief executive of the makeup salon Prettyology on Newbury Street, said she is OK with opening on a slower timeline. But public officials, she said, do not understand how thorough her industry already is with hygiene and sanitation measures.

“As tattoo artists, we are already so well-versed in PPE,” she said of personal protective equipment. “It seems like in many states, the tattoo world has been pushed back to phases two or three, but we are trained on how to prevent the spread of disease.”

Meanwhile, her colleague at Prettyology, Steve Pennypacker, said he still doesn’t know what the protocol on partitions for his beauty bar will be.

“We spent time thinking about the size of plexiglass dividers in between workers’ spaces . . . and we have no idea; we are not medical experts,” he said. “It is not a decision we are competent to make.”

In Georgia, hair and nail salons were included in the state’s first wave of easing of restrictions on April 24. On the other hand, Maine on Tuesday delayed the reopening of nail salons and gyms beyond an initial June 1 date. However, hair salons and barbershops were included in the first wave of reopenings on May 1.

In California, hair and nail salons are considered high-risk workplaces, meaning they must wait until the state’s third phase of recovery. Governor Gavin Newsom has said that the first community spread of the coronavirus in California occurred in a nail salon.

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In Oklahoma, a nail salon recently shut down one week after reopening because an employee tested positive for COVID-19.

Natasha Hochberg, an associate professor of medicine who focuses on infectious diseases at Boston University, said she wasn’t aware of any reasons why hair salons should open before nail salons, other than that stylists stand behind clients instead of in front of them. Even though consumers now have the option, she cautioned against booking services that would require spending hours in a salon.

“People will have to weigh the risks with the benefit to see if this is something they want to do now or put off,” Hochberg said. “If it’s possible to wash your hair at home or not get elaborate procedures done, you can limit the time you are near other people.”

Dr. Renée Moran, who provides pain-relief and beauty treatments at her practice in Newton Centre, had been booking appointments for late May and early June, so she was frustrated to learn she’d have to wait until phase two and spent Monday scrambling to rebook clients.

She said public officials don’t realize that many procedures in her spa, such as a fat-freezing procedure called coolsculpting and IV vitamin treatments, can be done in private treatment rooms that minimize contact with clients.

“We’re really hooking a machine onto them and leaving the room,” she said, adding that some procedures take much less time than a visit to a hair salon.

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“If I go to the hair salon and get highlights and a cut and wash I’ll be there for two-and-a-half hours,” Moran said. “If someone is coming in for a Botox appointment they’re in and out in 10 minutes.”

Demand for Botox is so high, she said, that clients have been calling to see if she can do home visits.

“I think it’s people on Zoom looking at themselves constantly,” she said. “They’re spending so much time staring at themselves.”

Janelle Nanos of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8.