[Nathon Oski / Unsplash]

The Reopening of Barbershops and Beauty Salons: Do Current Safety Measures Make the Cut?

12:00 June 09, 2020
By: John Glover

Difficult as it may be to believe, we're coming up on three months since the quarantine began and four weeks since New Orleans began "Phase One" of reopening on May 16. During the latter time, a laundry list of businesses have opened their doors a sliver. Phase One opened the floodgates for a measured wave of economic activity, from retail stores to restaurants, movie theaters, and barbershops.

Amid the technical to-do surrounding the logistics of the resumption and understandable relief that workers feel about having an income again, some people believe that health concerns have fallen unduly by the wayside. Representing this category, Where Y'at interviewed Jason Jones, ownerof Factotum Barber + Supply.

Factotum, located in the Bywater, is a man's man type of boutique haircut place. Copies of Playboy sit neatly on the waiting area coffee table. Clients wear pinstriped smocks and drink liquor out of a glass. When it comes time to shave, the barber wields a straight razor.

Jones kept Factotum closed, even as other shops in the city reopened with Phase One. Factotum has yet to reopen today, pending what the shop's owner might call safer workplace conditions.

[Tim Mossholder / Unsplash]

Why would a shop willingly remain shut down?

Jones put it this way: "The decision came when it came time to gather supplies and PPE." He realized that there was no agreed-on, industry-wide standard for sanitation equipment or safety apparel. A lot of the circumstances surrounding Phase One appeared to be sort of fly-by-night and hasty. Government officials were clearly set on getting the economy up and running again, but it was less apparent that they were following the science or particularly giving enough thought to the well-being of frontline workers.

"When I started to read about the stuff, I realized there was so much information out there," Jones said. "It was hard to know." Jones said he feels special concern for himself, his employees, and the public at large because barbers practice the sole trade included under the Phase One umbrella that actually involves physically touching people. (Phase Two covers the other ones: for instance, tattoo parlors). This complication alone raises questions, which Jones felt underprepared to answer.

What kind of gloves should barbers wear, or should they even wear gloves? Which type of mask offers the best protection? Maybe most glaringly of all, how on earth can two people be socially distant when one person is touching the other's hair? These questions are the tip of the iceberg in terms of the considerations the global pandemic is forcing everyone who operates a public space to account for in their respective operations.

Obviously, small business owners like Jones lack the time, resources, and training necessary to make decisions of this magnitude on their own. Yet, for the past several weeks in New Orleans, that's exactly what City Hall has been asking them to do. "The state has no plan in place," Jones said. The one group that might feasibly have the acumen and infrastructure necessary for coming up with precise guidelines and stipulations has been virtually asleep at the wheel.

Specifically, when it comes to the barber trade, "That is the function of the State Board of Cosmetology," Jones said. "They're concerned about the safety of the public and the safety of workers."

[Jason Leung / Unsplash]

Thus, the Factotum Barber owner came to the decision he's called the most difficult choice he's ever had to make during his career in business: to take the path of greater resistance and to remain as is when seemingly everyone else was reopening. On May 18, Jones wrote on the company's Facebook page, "After many sleepless nights wrestling with doing the right thing, I have decided to keep the shop closed." And, since then, he's stuck to his guns.

Do other people in the industry feel the same way?

Comments on the post reveal a touching outpouring of support from people sympathetic to the decision. Jones said that other barbershop owners and industry types direct-messaged him as well, expressing their private agreement.

In an effort to understand how other barbershops have been faring, Where Y'at reached out to a shop that's been operating since Phase One's initiation. A manager of an Uptown shop said she could only talk off-the-record for personal reasons. The shop in question, a sleek couple rooms occupying a rental studio space, seemed to be adjusting to the new way of doing things, but not without difficulty.

The manager said she'd gotten the hang of a newly rigorous cleaning and safety regimen. Lysol and barbicide, the industry's standard disinfectant, out the wazoo. Customers required to wear masks and 15 minutes between each haircut, to allow enough time for sterilization of furniture and equipment. According to the fire marshal, the rule-of-thumb ratio is one customer per barber.

While this shop has been getting by on something more substantial than a wing and a prayer, it hasn't been easy. When it came time to reopen, not one barber returned to work, except for this manager. She said one of her employees sustained an injury riding a bike. Rotten luck. Another one preferred unemployment benefits to work and the looming specter of the coronavirus. A sign of the times.

When asked for her opinion on the government's handling of things, the manager said she was happy to return to work. She loves talking to her clients, whether trying to get a read on walk-ins or keeping up her familiar rapport with regulars. She called it her "therapy." At the same time, she said that the economic reopening looked like a rush job.

Take that aforementioned fire marshal's order. She said that the only reason she was even aware of the proper social distance ratio is because she called the fire marshal's office by virtue of her own initiative. And the only reason she knew to do that came from her membership in a private Facebook group belonging to New Orleans small businesspeople; the Louisiana Board of Cosmetology was M.I.A.

Same story, different set of lips. An inaccessible city government used to a certain, top-down way of doing things issues its edicts. From the vantage point of the people on the ground, the rules take on the incorrigible momentum of the fait accompli. They were not consulted but told and, in some cases, not even that.

[Guilherme Petri / Unsplash]

What's to be done?

A pandemic is a double-edged threat in that it not only disproportionately effects the most vulnerable people in a given society, but it also precludes those peoples' ability to organize together to come up with a plan of action. For that reason, Jones and his compatriots haven't taken any steps yet to redress their grievances. But there is a petition in the works that they plan on presenting to public officials. The broad strokes of the complaint will be as follows:

First and foremost, there needs to be better education in general. The Louisiana Board of Cosmetology should be teaching people in the industry about the risks they're taking just by showing up for work every day. Workers should have access to useful information about PPE, along with everything else that goes along with cutting hair in the midst of a public health crisis. Jones emphasized standards. It shouldn't be left to the individual shops, owners, and employees to figure these things out, given their relatively humble devices.

Right now, Jones said we're seeing a convoluted industry approach to coping with the new challenges. "I'm hearing from a lot of workers about how supplies are running out—how they're not feeling very safe in their environment." While he stressed that he doesn't wish to speak ill of anyone in the business, Jones said that what safety precautions people have been taking seem insufficient.

With the government providing little input, it's difficult to imagine how they could be doing otherwise. Even if people had a plan in place, with the pandemic on, cleaning supplies and PPE are scarce right now. Jones said that when he ordered his equipment, it arrived over a month late, and even then, the distributor was only able to fill about 10 percent of his order. Meanwhile, the company that makes barbicide said it can't keep pace with demand.

The other leg of the hypothetical petition has to do with testing. A case-in-point of the disjointed efforts of Phase One is the usage of thermometers to take customers' temperatures. In some places, someone will take your temperature right when you walk in and turn you away if it shows a fever. Other places aren't even doing that. Even if they were, there's no evidence that fever is a universal symptom of the coronavirus; some people appear to be asymptomatic altogether.

Jones emphasized that "not only should testing be mandatory, but it should also be free and easily accessible to everyone in our industry." Workers shouldn't have to choose between the lesser of two evils: being out of a job or working under dangerous conditions. Testing and education should both be considered prerequisites before regular commerce gets underway again. "It's not always about making money," Jones said.

Where does Factotum go from here?

In order to see where all of this is headed, it's important to first understand where we've been.

At a certain point during the interview, it became clear that Jones was speaking from a place of deep conviction. When asked if he has a history in labor organization or activism, he said that growing up, members of his family were union members. A little over a decade ago, Jones himself belonged to a union as an electrician—a hazardous job, which, as such, has strident safety standards in place. In the electrician profession, trade organizations require that workers be educated before attempting certain perilous tasks.

The way he sees it, that background prepared him for this moment. Pandemic conditions have broadsided a vocation unused to having to perform the kind of sober balancing act necessary to compromise prosperity where necessary to safeguard peoples' lives. Jones said that he was an electrician until 2008. "I lost my job," he said. "I took the brunt of banks being negligent with people."

Jones's background also lends him a frame of reference for processing what's happening in the present. "If you pan out a little bit," he said, "you see that working people are being asked to do things that are not safe in order to keep the economy going." Jones sees a connection between Wall Street bankers getting off scot-free in 2008 at the expense of regular people and the social cleavages that the current crisis is exacerbating. The quarantine has, in practice, provided a macabre illustration of class divisions. White-collar people have been able to do their jobs from home, while blue-collar workers risk their lives in-person while receiving little, if anything, in return for this sacrifice.

As to where all of these developments are headed, Jones is less than optimistic. "I'm still gathering PPE together. I'm intending to open. At some point, I'll be forced to do something," he said. He expects that that "something" will happen before the government gets around to assuaging any of these concerns, if they ever do at all. Jones maintains he will "go above and beyond what the state is requiring and suggesting," but there is only so much that a lonely business can do.

Two Ways to Help:

To donate to Factotum's employees, visit checkout.square.site.

See the shop's online merchandise for sale at factotumsuppy.square.site.

Factotum Barber and Supply, 902 Piety St., 504-208-9801, factotumbarber.com.

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