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COVID Irony: Customers need to stay away from each other so barbers, stylists can reopen

Patti Singer

Willie Lightfoot, right, owner of New Creations Unisex Shop, is helping barbers and stylists prepare to reopen. He said shops will have to change how they provide service.
Provided by Willie Lightfoot

COVID-19 has put barbershops and salons in the classic chicken-and-egg conundrum.

Normally, these places provide health information as much as they do a shave and a weave. Because they’ve been closed since mid-March because of the pandemic, they haven’t been able to promote the message that physical distancing can slow the spread of the illness.

Now, with shop owners eyeing the possibility of getting back in business in the next week or so, they also are looking at the recent increase in the number of COVID-19 cases.

“We need to get the message out,” said Willie Lightfoot, owner of New Creations Unisex Shop. “If you want us to open, we need you to help us open.”

Barbers, hair stylists and other personal care providers are expected to be in the second phase of reopening in New York. Other businesses in this phase are professional services, retail, administrative support and real estate including rental and leasing.

Restaurants are in the third phase. Arts, entertainment, recreation and education are in the fourth phase. With each phase taking at least two weeks, a concert hall or indoor movie theater may not be open until late summer.

The timing of each phase is driven by factors that are measured by a three-day rolling average: decline in total hospitalizations, decline in deaths and new hospitalizations. The state tracks that data to make sure area hospitals have the ability to handle a spike in cases.

Some businesses may choose to wait an additional week or two after their industry is allowed to open, to make sure the number of cases have stabilized.

Some manufacturing and construction, along with curbside pickup for retail, were allowed to open May 15. But the days leading up to that were nail-biters. The number of hospitalizations increased each of the five preceding days. Deaths declined only one of those days, according to data from the Monroe County Department of Public Health.

From May 15 through May 25, hospitalizations have increased all but one day. Part of that is because of a new state regulation. Patients who test positive, including residents of a nursing home who have been hospitalized, cannot be discharged until they have repeat negative tests.

Nevertheless, business owners who are eager to reopen also are anxious about the trend lines. The county health department reported an increase in cases after Mother’s Day. Health Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza expressed concern that the same thing could happen after Memorial Day if people did not practice physical distancing and wear masks.

Ronnie Davis, left, has a barber shop and and his wife, Clarissa, owns a salon. Provided photo.

Clarissa Davis owns DaVine Hair Designs and her husband, Ronnie Davis, owns Visions Barbershop. With the family income dependent on the barber and style trade, they regularly check on the number of cases in the county.

“If people don’t act right, we can’t go back to work,” Davis said. “Practice your social distancing. Make sure you’re wearing your mask. Make sure you’re washing your hands. If you’re sick, stay away from people. … Everyone has to be on board with it.”

Lightfoot, president of the United Professional Barbers and Cosmetologists Association, said he commended Gov. Andrew Cuomo for not allowing barbers and stylists to open in the first phase. He said it’s impossible to keep a physical distance when cutting hair or doing nails. His organization has spent the past weeks getting information to members. He has held webinars with city and county leaders on how shops can reopen safely.

“The mayor and the county executive told us to start putting plans together now so it’s not a free for all when it’s time to open up,” he said.

Lightfoot said even if that plan doesn’t have to be submitted to government leaders for approval, it will have to pass muster with clientele. “Customers are going to be very leery about where they go now. They see that you haven’t changed anything, they’re probably not going to want to do business there.”

Nelson Baldwin, who owns a barber shop and is leader of the Jefferson Avenue Business Association, said the group is spreading the word about how to get protective equipment and also apply for grants for small businesses.

Charlotte Burch, president of the Thurston/Brooks Merchants Association, said having to close her small retail business has been a strain. But she wants to make sure she is stocked with hand sanitizer and other safety and cleaning supplies when she is able to reopen.

That date, though, depends on where the community is with the spread of COVID-19.

“It depends on us,” she said. “… People don’t stop on a dime. You know how small a dime is. People are in go mode. … This depends on slowing people down.”