Hair care crisis: Island barbers, salons say outbreak means bad business

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Things are getting hairy.

And that was even before business owners around the state awoke to a Monday morning bombshell.

On March 15, Gov. Jay Inslee clarified that his Sunday announcement that bars and restaurants must close also included other businesses that can draw a crowd, including gyms, fitness centers, barber shops, beauty and nail salons, movie theaters, tattoo parlors, non-tribal card rooms, youth sporting events and clubs, wineries and more.

As the death toll and number of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus on Bainbridge and throughout the state continues to rise — and most island schools, churches, and even city hall have temporarily shuttered — businesses of all stripes were already feeling the pinch.

Particularly affected are those operations that require close personal contact, among them barber shops, salons and beauty parlors.

The business of caring for Bainbridge Islanders’ hair has not escaped the wrath of COVID-19. And, in the face of an uncertain future and regularly changing headlines, as clients disappear, cancellations and fears increase, as several industry pros shared with the Review late last week.

“I’d say we’re doing probably about half of the people we normally do during the week,” said Kaylee Arnold, manager of Firefly Salon in downtown Winslow. “We’ve been getting a lot more cancellations. We’re trying to be really flexible about it and waiving cancellation fees. We’re pretty aware of our aging community and trying to keep the spread from happening around here.”

Arnold said most of the salon’s clients are at least 60 years old and very concerned about the virus — mostly.

“There are some that are still out and not acting so serious about it, but we’re trying to at least share the information that we have with them,” she said. “I was big-time with cleaning before, but it’s gotten to the point where my hands are so cracked from washing and … [using] hand sanitizer and cleaning doors that I have allergic reactions to unscented lotion.”

Firefly Salon reportedly employs seven people, all full-time.

“We haven’t had to reduce staff hours,” Arnold said. “Luckily, our bosses had a really good year last year, so they’re willing to … we’ve kind of got plans for paid sick leave for at least a week. They’re super flexible, so if anybody has any symptoms we’ve been making them stay home and still doing the paid sick leave thing.

“We’re just being really cautious right now, but I know that if we had to shut down it would affect everyone.”

Arnold said while she could maybe do some marketing and administrative work from home, the stylists’ presence is required in the salon. She fears none of her employees could weather a lengthy drought between paychecks.

“We’re going to do it as long as we can, but if it affects the community’s safety or our own we’re more than willing to shut down and do whatever we can,” she said. “But I think that not being able to have an income is going to be a real hardship for most people. I mean, we’re all middle to low-income folks.”

Chuck Stearns, of Chuck’s Barber Shop on High School Road, said Friday he has also seen less customers in the wake of the outbreak, and COVID-19 is most definitely the primary topic of conversation among those that do come in.

“That’s all they’re talking about,” he said. “I don’t remember anything like this that’s going on as far as the hysteria of it.”

Stearns said his clientele runs the gamut age-wise, though he serves almost exclusively men. As of late last week, he has had only one cancellation for which the person specifically cited the outbreak as the reason for not coming, but noted that person was “very, very elderly and on the frail side.”

For himself, Stearns isn’t too worried.

“I’m not [concerned], otherwise I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “The media, they only tell you how many people are dying and how many are infected. They really don’t tell you [what] success rates there have been with people that have had it and are well again.”

He agreed that cleaning, though always a priority, had become an even larger part of his job.

“It is a concern, obviously. It always is in this particular profession,” he said. “I keep the bottle of Purell close and do the right thing.”

Mike Rogers, of Sandy’s Barber Shop in downtown Winslow, also reported a noticeable drop in customers.

“I think they’re running scared,” he said. “People are not wanting to come out, they’re scared to death right now.”

For his own health, Rogers, whose clientele is mostly men but of many varied ages, said he was unconcerned, though the effects of the outbreak on his business could be bad.

“I think there will be enough trickling in to keep me alive,” he said. “I think it’ll just keep going and keep me alive, and if not I’ll do something else. There are always other options, once a door slams another opens.”

Rogers said he was researching government assistance programs and considering possibly taking a bartending course, if the crisis continues.

“What are you going to do about it? You can’t change it,” Rogers said.

“My little brother and I always say … it’s not what happens to you in life, it’s what you do about it that counts. Bad [stuff] happens to everybody and we’re all in the same boat. This is not just me. This is the whole town. This is the whole state. This is the whole United States … and they’re going to solve it. No doubt in my mind they’re working on it right now, trying to get solutions.”

Until that time, though, Rogers said he would take things in stride and do his best.

“If I could change it I would, but I have no power to change it,” he said. “I’m not one bit worried.”

He also said cleaning has become an even more prominent aspect of his job.

“I’ve got every sanitation thing I can get here,” Rogers said.

A representative for the Great Clips in Island Village Shopping Center and Defining Moments Hair Salon (341 Tormey Lane NE) did not respond to the Review’s requests for comment.

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