A woman with glossy curls and a pink jumpsuit held a temperature gun to my forehead as I stood on the threshold of a hair salon in Cambridge early Monday morning.
If all went according to plan, I was going to be the first customer at Le Petit Salon Curl Concept since Governor Charlie Baker allowed barbershops and salons to reopen across the state. I hadn’t entered a building other than my home or a grocery store for the past few months, and suddenly I felt nervous — what if I registered a temperature? But soon the thermometer blinked green and I was ushered inside. I felt a small thrill of excitement. A new building!
Teo Sorce, 48, the owner, wore black stiletto boots that matched her black latex gloves. She was enthusiastic about being back, but also daunted by what lay ahead: the endless hours of spraying down, washing, and sanitizing that now makes up running a salon.
“If you think about how many steps I have to do!" she said. She sat me at the far end of a row of empty chairs and surveyed the situation on my head.
I had never considered cutting my hair myself during lockdown, because it is very curly and I have many beliefs and superstitions about what allows it to thrive. It looked, as Sorce affectionately put it, like “a big bush."
She donned a plastic face shield over her disposable mask and got to work.
At first I was startled that someone was so close to me, especially when Sorce explained that the state requires hair stylists to wear goggles, glasses, or face shields to prevent viral spread through the eyes. But soon I relaxed into the chair. I felt a rush of gratitude when I got my hair shampooed, although just the day before I would have jumped if someone came within 5.5 feet of me.
The casual atmosphere of a typical salon — the reading of People magazine while you wait your turn, the chatting with other customers and stylists, the drinking of water from a cooler — was entirely gone, replaced by an attention to hygiene more often found in an operating room.
Customers are required to wear masks and gloves to enter (by appointment only), and salon chairs are 6 feet apart. Employees quietly shadow clients around the shop, spraying sink handles and chairs and tabletops with disinfectant as soon as a client moves along.
Sorce, who is from Brazil and opened the salon 11 years ago, was itching to reopen it, even at 25 percent capacity with lots of restrictions in place.
She had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars during the past two months, and had to take money out of her savings to pay the salon’s bills. Even now, she was only able to hire back fewer than half of her employees.
"I can eat bread and water and I’ll reopen my salon,” said Sorce. “That’s my house, that’s everything.”
The staff had spent Memorial Day weekend training for the new policies and calling customers about what to expect at their upcoming appointments. One client had asked if it would be possible to sit inside a glass box while a hair stylist reached her hands into holes on either side; an employee had to explain that unfortunately the salon does not have such a box.
After I examined the back of my head with a plastic mirror, Sorce politely plucked the mirror from my hand as if it was a dead thing and whisked it away to sanitize with a wet wipe. Then she dried her hands with a paper towel.
Sorce had mixed hair color for some of her clients when the salon was closed and dropped the formulas outside their doors so they could color their own hair. She was eager to see them in person again.
“We are very important to each other,” she said.
Jillian Smith, 38, a senior hairstylist who gave me the shampoo, had just started working at the salon. (Some employees had picked up other jobs during the closure, Sorce said, and she wasn’t sure if they would come back). For the past two months Smith has been at home with her two young children, practicing cutting hair on mannequins in the kitchen. Though she attended occasional trainings at the salon, she wasn’t making regular money.
She said she was “very concerned” about going back to work, partly because she is in contact with her elderly in-laws. But at the same time, she said, she needs the work, and as the weeks stretch into months, she doesn’t see full-on lockdown as a viable option.
“We can’t just live on lockdown,” she said.
Smith said she understands why the salon is booked from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day this week. Hair matters.
“It’s a part of your identity,” she said. “It goes deeper than just, ‘I want to look pretty.’ ”
It’s a form of care, too, an acknowledgment that we still rely on each other, despite all the masks and the distance.
After the shampoo, I sat under the plastic drier, where my curls sprang back to life. I ran my gloved fingers through them — they were short and buoyant. I felt lighter. Maybe it was really summer. Then a client who was getting her hair colored across the room began to cough behind her mask.
“It’s allergies,” she said, before anyone asked.