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'How Would We Feel if a Client or Employee Died After Contracting the Virus at Our Salon?'

One Midwestern salon owner shares his perspective and fears about reopening.

Neal Miller Black is the co-owner of Gem Salon + Spa in Saint Paul, Minnesota. With his permission, Fashionista is sharing the open letter he penned in response to Governor Tim Walz's plans for reopening salons in the state beginning on June 1. Read on for his unedited thoughts on the subject.

We have a hospital bed ready for you. That was the essence of the message Minnesota Governor Tim Walz delivered to hair stylists and other salon service providers on May 13, when he announced that state agencies would prepare a plan for allowing the "limited and safe" reopening of salons on June 1. But can salons really open safely? 

My wife and I own Gem Salon + Spa, a small salon in Saint Paul. (She has more than 20 years of experience in the industry. I am semi-retired, with a background in journalism, government communication and public relations, including risk communication.) Because safety is a subjective concept determined by weighing the need for an activity versus its risks, is it wise to reopen salons, since they are non-essential businesses that carry a relatively high risk of spreading coronavirus? 

On April 27 (prior to Governor Walz's decision to extend the stay at home order from May 4 to May 18), we announced that Gem would remain closed indefinitely, primarily because the lack of crucial tools such as testing, contact tracing, and effective treatments for Covid-19 would make reopening too risky and would undermine the good work being done to fight the pandemic. Setting any date to reopen seemed premature. Yet, at about that same time, some prominent salons did announce plans to reopen… on June 1. 

Clearly political pressure would be applied to ensure a June 1 reopening, science be damned. 

On May 12, the day before the governor's announcement, Minneapolis-St Paul Magazine published a puff piece describing the protective measures being implemented by some of these same salons. Among the quotes from the salon owners (described as "hair gods") featured in this promotional piece: that stylists were "ready and eager" to get back to work, that "100 percent quality and safety" could be ensured, and (perversely) that "safety is the new luxury."

The article did not include perspectives from rank-and-file stylists who will endure the risk and stress of working under tight restrictions, or the views of owners of smaller salons who may find it financially difficult or impossible to re-configure work spaces, secure personal protective equipment, and operate at limited capacity. Nor did it ask whether the "hair gods" are willing to accept the risk, however small, of seeing some of their employees, colleagues and clients fall seriously ill or die in order to provide services that are totally unnecessary. 

And that is the crux of the issue. As much as we believe in the value of the work that salons perform and take pride in the joy it brings clients, in the hierarchy of human needs it ranks very, very low.

The Minneapolis-St Paul Magazine piece is a stark reminder that while some of us continue to struggle with the ethics of reopening, particularly the question of whether reopening too soon will undermine efforts to fight the pandemic, other salon owners now are treating the situation basically as a marketing challenge: how to convince wary clients to return by painting a happy picture of salons with protective measures in place that will keep everyone safe. 

Implicit in this feel-good message is the assumption that the crisis has passed, that any remaining risks can be managed and that even in a pandemic the rules of privilege apply. "The new salon is going to be a wonderful, beautiful place," gushed one owner, "more of a white glove, high-end experience that allows us the ability to connect with our clients even more than before." Another owner casually insisted that "it's time to give people a piece of normalcy back." And, of course, the reprehensible view that "safety is the new luxury" speaks for itself. 

The attitude that salons can operate safely may be dangerously naive. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease and Policy at the University of Minnesota, recently pointed out that we are in the second inning of a nine-inning game. The stay-at-home order only pushed back the peak of the first wave of the pandemic in Minnesota. It is likely if not inevitable that the expiration of that order will trigger not only a rise in the infection rate but a broadening of its impact. At this point, setting a date for salons to reopen does nothing but feed the false perception that we are returning to normalcy when in fact the risks remain high. 

We do not necessarily fault Governor Walz for his decision. He has done a remarkable job managing this crisis, and his compassion and empathy for the plight of others consistently shines through in his communication. He undoubtedly is under enormous pressure not only from those such as the aforementioned "hair gods" of the Twin Cities, but legislators representing the owners of bars, restaurants, salons, etc. in areas less affected by the pandemic (so far). 

Governor Walz, his team and the health care community may have done their jobs too well. Because of the limited spread of coronavirus in Minnesotam relatively few of us have experienced directly the terrible consequences of Covid-19, leading to a false sense of security. 

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But while we have grown weary of the pandemic, the virus has not. 

The basic facts remain unchanged. Coronavirus is a highly-contagious airborne pathogen. (Disinfectants, masks and other protective measures can provide only limited protection for those working together in an enclosed space for an extended period of time.) A person infected with coronavirus may be asymptomatic or not develop symptoms for many days (allowing one person to unknowingly spread the virus to dozens of others). Some people experience only mild symptoms, others experience debilitating illness and a long recovery process and some die. 

The only reasonable conclusion one can draw from these facts is that reopening salons under current circumstances, even with protective measures in place, will lead to illness and death. How much, no one can say. Some salons will be safer than others, but none will be risk-free. Insofar as stylists are not health care practitioners and not trained to function in infectious environments, lapses in safety are bound to occur. As everyone becomes more comfortable with restrictions, complacency will set in, further increasing risk. 

The intention to reopen salons on June 1 was announced before the state had any guidelines or requirements in place (although some can be presumed). Will inspections be required before opening, and if not, will some salons cut corners and increase risk to avoid losing clients? Will adequate supplies of personal protection equipment even be available, and if so, will increased demand force prices up or, worse, siphon off supplies that would be put to better use by essential businesses? 

Some salons, including ours, that received loans through the Payroll Protection Program, are under pressure to use those funds for payroll expenses by June 30 or risk losing the ability to have all or part of the loans forgiven. (The PPP loans are low-interest, but must be paid back within two years, a significant financial burden that may be too much for some salons.) In effect, these rules reward salons that accept the risk of opening earlier, while punishing salons that exercise more caution. 

Perhaps we are too cautious, but as long as our staff can receive adequate unemployment benefits, why should we rush them back when so much uncertainty still exists? Unfortunately, because the “hair gods” have decided that their salons should reopen, more and more stylists and small salons (including ours) will feel pressure to get back to work. For many, understandably, the fear of losing clients will outweigh their fear of Covid-19. 

It should be noted that, while the beauty industry is highly competitive and has more than its share of practitioners driven by ambition, most who enter the business are creative, caregiving people who place their relationships with clients above almost everything. They share all the joys and troubles of each other's lives: the joy, laughter, pain, and tears. This lost connection alone motivates many to return to work, but that does not make it safe.

More voices need to be heard before salons rush to reopen. Do the stylists and other service providers who will work on the front lines agree with reopening soon? Do they feel pressured to return by salon owners, financial stress, or the fear of losing clients? How do they feel about the possibility of giving up unemployment benefits now only to face the same situation again in a matter of weeks or months when a second wave of infections hit? What about those with health conditions, children, or vulnerable household members? How do they feel about the risk of losing clients if they decide to protect themselves and others by delaying their return to work? 

Just as the pandemic is exposing (again) the inequities in our culture — for example, communities of color disproportionately harmed by the impact of Covid-19 — so perhaps we now are seeing in real time the darker side of the "beauty industry": large salons and salon chains, controlled primarily by men, exploiting a work force comprised primarily of young women, many of whom lack the experience and organizational skill to push back. Their interests have not been well represented in the decision-making process. As a result, they will bear whatever risks there are in opening too soon, while salon owners will reap the long-term rewards. 

Our concern remains largely the same as it was on April 27. Because the services we provide are non-essential, and because our services require people to work in relatively close proximity to each other for an extended period of time, it seems irresponsible to reopen until the rate of new infections begins to decline, routine testing is readily available, and a robust contact-tracing system is in place, so that the inevitable infections can be detected and isolated quickly. 

Unfortunately, the political will to keep salons closed no longer exists. Even Governor Walz sounded fatalistic when he spoke with reporters after his May 13 announcement. "This is either going to work or not work," he said. "People are either going to stay out of the hospital or get in it."

Yes, the stay-at-home order bought the state time to prepare for what is certain to be many more cases of Covid-19 in the weeks and months ahead. We have a hospital bed ready for you. But the question remains: Is a haircut or any other beauty service worth the risk of even one death? I am reminded of the scene in the film Jaws when tourists and townsfolk are huddled on the beach on the Fourth of July wondering whether it's safe to go in the water after a recent shark attack. Eventually they do, just a few at first, then everyone. And the shark attacks. Everyone survives… except one child. 

We feel a bit like the police chief in the film. Despite having taken all reasonable precautions, how would we feel if a client or employee died after contracting the virus at our salon? Could we accept it? Could you? 

Strange days indeed. 

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