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September 29, 2022

Personal care industry reopens after year of stops and starts

Salons got a bad rap in pandemic, industry members say

Workers in the beauty industry usually celebrate the winter holidays with more work. In a regular year, a surge of bookings can double or triple the income of a hairstylist.

But, in 2020, the most glamorous time of year—a mainstay of the $50 billion beauty industry—lost its verve when California ordered another lockdown in early December, slashing earnings for hairstylists, manicurists, aestheticians, massage therapists, plastic surgeons, barbers, herbalists and massage therapists.

Last month’s news of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s relaxation of pandemic-related business restrictions brought some relief. But, after nearly a year of abrupt closures, cautious re-openings and a steady stream of bad press, stylists still struggle. 

In addition to the closures, safety regulations have greatly restricted the number of clients a stylist can serve on a work day.

Carolyn Parise and her husband Steve Reynolds are the owners and only two stylists at Gloss Beauty Lounge on Depot Street in downtown Morgan Hill. Parise said the restrictions are especially difficult on the small, two-chair salon because the social distancing requirements allow only one stylist to work at a time. That alone cuts the couple’s household income by half of what they could earn, though Parise notes it’s better than mandated full closures in the spring and summer of 2020.

“2019 was the best year we ever had. 2020 was by far the worst year we ever had,” said Parise, who established Gloss with Reynolds in 2005 in Willow Glen. The couple moved the salon to Morgan Hill about five years ago, bringing many of their loyal clients with them.

“This whole time, we’ve been wondering if businesses will be able to survive,” Parise added. “We’ve fought hard to keep our business going, to find ways to keep our doors open. I feel like we’re probably through the worst of it, but I’m always wondering if there will be another shutdown.”

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the most recent shutdown for many personal care professionals is that the state failed to prove that the beauty industry posed a greater risk than retail stores and shopping malls, many of which remained open throughout the holidays.

“Although I trust the scientists and the health department, I personally haven’t seen the evidence that closing salons truly helped stop the spread” of Covid-19, Parise said. “I feel like our businesses suffer because of decisions that are made. A lot of salons have closed their doors. Stylists have left the state.”

In a lawsuit filed Jan. 21 against Newsom and other state officials, the Professional Beauty Federation of California (PBFC) argues California singled out the industry because of its lack of lobbying power.

“The personal-services sectors are the quintessential small-business sectors,” PBFC attorney Fred Jones said, “and yet, because we don’t have the same clout as Hollywood or big business, we have become the sacrificial lambs to the Covid gods.”

It’s a sacrifice borne disproportionately by minorities, he points out.

The state’s assiduous focus on salons and cosmetic services has hammered an industry composed overwhelmingly of women, immigrants and members of the LGBTQ community. Of PBFC’s 621,000 dues-paying licensees, Jones says, more than 80 percent are female and 75 percent are first-generation immigrants.

“This is the profession that this governor has sacrificed,” he says. “That’s not very politically correct, is it?”

Parise said it was frustrating—to her and her clients—to see large retailers like Costco and Valley Fair mall remain open while small businesses in the beauty industry, which follow stringent safety guidelines even in normal times, were restricted.

Industry laments state’s rhetoric

In Jones’ telling, the industry’s financial woes began when Gov. Newsom blamed a Northern California nail salon for the first known case of community spread of the novel coronavirus. PBFC, reporters and other industry groups demanded data to support the assertion. State officials never provided that.

Newsom’s claim proved baseless. But the damage was done.

“What he didn’t realize was that he was throwing all this shade at our industry in the minds of Californians,” Jones says. “As a result, we’ve had a cumulative seven months of lockdowns. This is our third reopening after our third closure since March, and every time we reopen, there are less clients coming back because they’re picking up the message that this industry is unsafe.”

While state officials and their local counterparts repeated the narrative of the dangers inherent to salons, research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggested otherwise. The study published last summer found facemasks may have prevented a pair of Covid-positive Missouri hairstylists from spreading the virus to as many as 140 clients.

Missouri’s Springfield-Greene County Health Department, which led the investigation, determined that policies requiring people to cover mouths and noses and the salon’s strict sanitation policies played a substantial role in curbing what could have been a huge outbreak.

Jen Erickson, founder and CEO of Silicon Valley Apprenticeship Barbering/Cosmetology and a 25-year industry veteran, says clients should rest assured that salons are safe to patronize. Passing the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology test requires 1,600 class-hours—about 1,000 more than needed to become a police officer—and fluency in sterilization and cross-contamination.

“With the pandemic,” she says, “a lot of us even went above and beyond, retrofitting salons to make things safe, spending money even though we weren’t making any.”

Available data seem to back Jones’ suspicions about the shutdowns being less science-and-data-based than Newsom lets on.

Statistics released last month by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office show that 74 percent of Covid-19 cases for which there’s contact-tracing data available were attributed to household gatherings. Bars and restaurants accounted for just 1.43 percent of the spread. Salons and personal care services, just 0.14 percent.

Jones wants to see similar California data.

Newsom’s press secretary, Daniel Lopez, says the governor stands by the state’s public health mandates.

“We will vigorously defend against any lawsuit challenging public health orders implemented to preserve the ability of our medical system to provide needed care to all Californians,” he says. “We are confident the court will uphold the order, as have numerous courts that have recently considered similar challenges.”

Parise also worries about the impact of the restrictions on her clients, who are missing the self-care and relaxation time they enjoy at their regular visits to the salon.

“People are still down about having to deal with Covid. So many people want to come into the salon for that pick-me-up so they can feel better, and feel more themselves,” Parise said. “It is encouraging to be able to put a smile on someone’s face and make them feel good again.”

Michael Moore contributed reporting. 

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