Hairstylists And Barbers Are Grappling With Whether To Stop Cutting Hair During The Coronavirus Outbreak

"We can’t practice social distancing when we do hair. It just isn't possible."

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Joanne Marsden knew Tuesday would be her last day of work for a while.

Even though local health officials hadn't mandated any restrictions on hair salons, that nagging feeling that Marsden needed to do more to protect herself and her clients — and help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus — had grown to outweigh her concerns about being able to financially support her family.

"We can’t practice social distancing when we do hair," Marsden, a hairstylist in Irvine, California, told BuzzFeed News. "It just isn't possible."

As officials across the US order restrictions on bars, restaurants, gyms, and other businesses to stifle the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, hairstylists and barbers in many cases are having to decide for themselves whether to continue operating their businesses. For those that close, it's a decision that will cut off their only source of income for what could be weeks or months to come.

"Our industry in general has felt a little bit left out because we aren't getting mandates from government — state or federal officials," said April Markley, 39, a hairstylist in Denver. "We haven't been given specific instructions to close, but, I mean, from what everyone’s understanding, our workplace and environment [are], like, prime spreadable areas."

Hairstylists and salon owners who spoke to BuzzFeed News described how difficult it has been for them and others in the industry to decide whether to stay open. Some are choosing to continue operating until their state or county health officer force them to close — and doing what they can to maintain a clean workplace. Others have chosen to shut down now out of concern that they could be contributing to the spread of the disease.

"As [a] hairstylist/barber, you only make money if you’re working," said Russell Cordeiro, a hairstylist and barber at Art + Autonomy SoHo Salon in New York City. "There is no such thing as sick days. There is no such thing as vacation days."

Cordeiro said that initially his salon was waiting for the government to mandate they close — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not specifically ordered hair or nail establishments to cease operations. But on Monday, the owners and stylists collectively decided to close the shop on a week-to-week basis.

"The idea was ... let's squeeze in as much as we can before they made an announcement, but I feel like the moral aspect came into play before that," he said.

As of Thursday, more than 11,000 people in the US have tested positive for COVID-19, and more than 100 people have died. Experts believe the number of people infected is likely much higher due to a lack of sufficient testing.

To help stymie the spread of the disease, local, state, and federal officials are urging people to practice social distancing by staying at least 6 feet away from others outside of their household and working from home if possible.

Still, some salon owners are continuing to cut and style clients' hair because of financial concerns or out of the belief that closing isn't necessary to protect public health until their local government orders it.

"People are still going to the grocery store. You can't disinfect everything that's there. They're still allowing restaurants to service the public only through delivery and takeout. It still can be spread," said hairstylist Selima Peterson, who owns a salon in New Haven, Connecticut.

Peterson said if her county health department orders her to close, she will. Until then, she is continuing to see clients, spacing out their appointments so they don't overlap, and disinfecting all equipment and physical spaces after each visit.

"Rain, sleet, snow — we are out working," she said. "This virus is not going to stop me, and if my clients need me, I'm going to be there."

After Peterson spoke with BuzzFeed News Thursday morning, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont signed an executive order mandating that hair salons, tattoo parlors, and other cosmetic businesses in the state cease operations. Peterson said she would abide by the order.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, health officials took the drastic step Monday of ordering all residents to shelter in place for at least three weeks and mandating the closure of all nonessential businesses — including beauty salons.

It was that order that forced Caroline Kan to close her business, House of Colours, in San Jose on Monday, though she said she probably would have shut down anyway.

"Eventually I probably would have because the numbers are just freaking skyrocketing," Kan, 29, told BuzzFeed News.

In the meantime, Kan said, she has some money saved to help her get by for a little while, and her landlord gave her an extension to pay the salon's April rent. But she isn't sure how long she'll be able to keep her business afloat if she's unable to work for a longer period of time.

Like several other stylists who spoke with BuzzFeed News, Kan is an independent contractor and isn't currently eligible for unemployment benefits.

"Financially, I mean, I'm definitely going to get a really big hit," she said.

Markley, who is also an independent contractor, said she has been negotiating with the owner of the salon where she rents a chair about cutting her payment in half for the next month after she decided to stop seeing clients for at least three weeks. But if it gets to a point where she has to choose between her apartment and her workspace, she'll probably have to give up her spot at the salon altogether.

"I think we’re all sort of in that place right now," Markley said.

Even for those stylists who are salon employees and do qualify for unemployment, getting assistance hasn't been easy.

"I tried about four times today to apply," Cordeiro said Wednesday, referring to New York state's unemployment benefits program. "The website keeps crashing on me."

Cordeiro, whose partner works at the same salon, said he thinks they will be OK without any income for a few months. But, he added, it's hard to say what exactly lays ahead.

"Of course we’re going to have to start living a bit more frugally, but, like I said, I don't think it’s completely really set in or that full realization of the impact that this is really going to have on our lives and, I think, everyone’s lives," he said. "This is going to add up."

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