There’s been a meme/phrase floating around social media in the era of COVID-19 that goes something like: “We’re all a couple weeks away from learning what everyone’s natural hair color is.” Maybe so. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it will be the least of our worries. Whatever you make of it, it’s a joke that lands the same way most social media humor punchlines land these days: less like a rimshot, more like nervous laughter.
But what about the folks on the other side of the swivel chair, the ones who actually do color our hair and staff our barbershops, tattoo studios, nail salons and beauty shops? On March 23, Arkansas Department of Health Director Nate Smith announced a decision to close such businesses to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. And unlike restaurants and liquor stores, who can still try and operate in some curbside/delivery capacity, these people can’t work on our bodies from afar. Zoom is a many-splendored thing, but it can’t give me a pedicure. We talked to five people in (and around) the beauty and grooming industry about the impacts of the closures thus far, and about what they see coming in the months ahead.
Katie Thomas, a hairstylist at Salon Joseph in the Heights neighborhood
“The salon has been open four years, and I’ve been there since it opened. My last day there [before the mandated closures] was the 17th. There’s only three of us — it’s a small salon, and we’re a pretty tight group. So we decided together that we were gonna split shifts and work one stylist at a time. Like, split the week and each work by ourselves for a couple of days. So we did that for a few days, and even that just started to not feel like enough, the more we read, and the more we saw the news, and the whole ‘flatten the curve’ thing. You know how they started putting out the graphs about flattening the curve? And really spelling it out for us? I don’t think I really understood the gravity of the situation until I saw those. There was one, I think it was in the New York Times, it showed a little dot infecting all the other dots. I guess I’m a visual learner, because that one really, I was like, ‘Oh, shit. OK.’ So we [at Salon Joseph] were pretty uncomfortable early on. … It terrifies me, not knowing how long it’s gonna be. You know, and hairdressers are not known for being the most ‘together’ demographic. There are not a lot of us that have a huge rainy day fund. So that scares me. It was scary enough when it was like, ‘OK, we’re gonna be closed for two weeks,’ which is kind of what I was thinking at first. Like, we’ll close for a few weeks, and it’s gonna suck, but then it’ll be OK, and now it’s like, who knows? Everybody’s scared. At least I know that when I go back to work, my business is there, and it’s gonna be more business than I can handle. I would be more concerned if I were a restaurant owner, or worked in a restaurant. My oldest son works in restaurants in Fayetteville, and both of his restaurants have closed. So he’s without employment, and they’re both small, locally owned, awesome little businesses that might not be able to reopen. I think I’m in a safer position, future-wise. I worry more for the service industry. I would like to say that my clientele — and this is gonna be different from stylist to stylist — but I was just counting my list earlier today and I have had 24 people pre-pay me for a color and cut. That is amazing. That will help me so much. So people are being really considerate. I’ve seen a lot of people talking about ‘Don’t forget your favorite waitress, your hairstylist, your manicurist,’ and I really like that. I do think people are trying to keep us in mind.”
Ashley Granderson, tattoo artist at 7th Street Tattoo
“I work at 7th Street Tattoo in Little Rock. The shop closed on March 21, but I actually didn’t work the week prior. I have health issues and could be immunocompromised, so my boss, Robert Berry, gave me the option to go ahead and stay home. His two daughters work there as well and also deal with health issues, so they did the same. 7th Street has been in business for over 20 years, I personally have been tattooing for 16 [years] — six of those at 7th Street.
The days leading up to closing, from what my coworkers say, seemed a bit surreal. The shop was going by appointment only that last week open. Clients weren’t allowed to bring anyone with [them], to help with social distancing, but as you can probably guess, social distancing is a bit difficult in our line of work! I will say there was no shortage of people wanting work done in the days and weeks leading up to closing.
The impact on me personally so far, outside of a bit of anxiety and feeling a little stir-crazy being home, hasn’t been much. I’ve been cleaning and organizing my house mostly, lots of reading, drawing, video games and going down YouTube rabbit holes. I’m more worried about my elderly father than myself. Luckily, I married a man who, we’ll say, is “prepper-adjacent.” (He’s not as nutty as some may seem, but he still believes in being prepared for whatever may come.)
As for what may come, I truthfully do not know. I DO know panicking will help no one. From what I’m seeing and hearing people seem to finally be taking this seriously so maybe if we can all come together (metaphorically of course) and work together, we can definitely beat this thing. The powers that be need to put peoples lives first and show us that they really care about this country.”
Matt Dillion, owner of Goodfellas Barbershop
“We waited until the day we got the notice from the government. We were trying to be health-conscious, and wanted everyone to be safe. First things first: Be very sanitary and very clean, so no one gets this disease. We cut a lot of people. We come into contact with a lot of people. We can have about 50-60 people in the shop at one time, from children all the way up to older people, and this disease can spread easily. Of course it’ll affect us financially, but health is wealth. More important than money. With all the money you can make, you can’t buy health back. It’s disappointing to not do what we love to do, but if we go ahead and knock it out now, it’ll be easier for us later on. And it gives us time to miss it, you know? We pray everyone in Arkansas stays safe and healthy, and we’ll live to see another day. May God continue to bless us all.”
Cheyenne Gibson, owner of Southern Blonde and Co.
“We closed Saturday [March 21]. The truth is that we were unsure of the socially responsible thing to do, because we were allowed to be open. But it started to feel really wrong. For me, I have to weigh out two options that both suck, and that is, ‘Can we push through until a mandated non-essential business closure?,’ because we desperately needed this one last week’s worth of income. Or do we close tomorrow? What do we do? I had a sick feeling in my stomach every day, because I have these girls who look to me for a paycheck. This is like, every day, I’m nauseous about it, I can’t figure it out. But I also didn’t really understand the virus much myself. So the day that I woke up and it finally clicked for me, I thought, ‘Oh, my God. We have to close. I’m so embarrassed.’ So since I was a late adapter, we made a decision on [March 18] to fulfill appointments through Saturday, and to end it then because it was the socially responsible thing to do, and the community let everybody know that it was. … The biggest problem since we’ve closed is that every day the girls are trying to figure out the unemployment website. Every day they’re trying to figure out how this thing works. I’ve never been through this, so I’m leaning on other people going through this to help me help them navigate. It’s been this up-in-the-air question, like, ‘What’s gonna happen with this bill? What’s gonna happen with these SBA loans?’ One of the girls, who makes $800 a week, was quoted $163 a week on unemployment. So I have to look at that and go, ‘OK, well, she can’t live on that, so now I’m gonna have to take out a loan to make up some livable wage for her.’ … The other thing is that they are employees, they’re not 1099/self-employed, so that’s been helpful, but it’s also been a lot more confusing, because they get these numbers based on the past year. It’s all over the place, and I have no answers for them, and I’m the one they look to for answers. So I just feel pretty sick every day. Before I knew anything about this — the unemployment, and the benefits that we may or may not get, it looked positive today, but I try not to get super excited. … We’re prepared to do the scariest thing ever — drain our savings — because we are so small, and we’re like a family. What am I supposed to do? Just be OK with them making $163 a week? I can’t do it. … I think there’s gonna be a really interesting thing that happens when all this shakes down. It’s gonna be a new normal.”
Travis Bowman, fingerstyle harp guitarist, currently sans a nail technician due to COVID-19 closures
“I’ve been playing [fingerstyle guitar] since I was 12 years old, and I’ve actually had the acrylic nails for the past six years. I’ll take them off for about a week for a rest time, to make sure that my natural nails get washed, and get sunlight and oxygen to keep ’em healthy. But I discovered that a lot of my guitar heroes in fingerstyle guitar use acrylic nails just because you get the best tone out of the instrument. You get more attack that way. … I’ve had a lot of people give me suggestions like using ping pong balls. If you break those open and kind of cut them up, you can fashion your own nails. I’ve tried other solutions — there’s actually a company called Tiptonic nails, and it’s designed just for people who want to play fingerstyle guitar. I tried that for a while, and it’s just a really intricate and ridiculous design, to be honest … and I’m just a little bit too aggressive with my right hand, so they would just fly off. I’ve also looked on Amazon and you can order your own kit to do it at home, but I wear the nails on my right hand, and I’m right-handed, so I might have to get somebody in my family to help me do it the first time. This is a brand new thing for me. But it’s not at all, like, a huge concern. Obviously, this is a very first-world type of problem that I have going. There’s lots of other people that have real world issues going on. Still, kinda sucks, nevertheless.”