But this is what a global pandemic has required of Alex, turning a common job into a high-risk one. After his salon manager texted him and his colleagues that they were out of jobs, Alex placed an ad on Craigslist, stocked up Sally Beauty Supply and began crisscrossing Oregon’s largest city in violation of the stay-at-home order by Gov. Kate Brown (D).
“I feel like a criminal,” said Alex, who asked that his last name not be used because he didn’t want to get in trouble for his barbering services.
The coronavirus recession is rapidly reshaping the economy, creating a black market of hair stylists, nail technicians and trainers catering to Americans who still want to look put together when even simple grooming could spread the virus.
As confirmed U.S. cases of the novel coronavirus surge past 85,000, more than two dozen states have ordered nonessential businesses — salons, barbershops, nail parlors and gyms among them — to close their doors to slow the outbreak’s spread. With hundreds of thousands of personal-care workers suddenly out of work, many are continuing to work in proximity with regular clients and even strangers, despite warnings that social distancing is the best protection against spreading the infection.
Some are defying stay-at-home orders because they have no other way to pay the bills. Some are just trying to be of use to others amid the crisis. All offer a measure of closeness and normalcy at a time when both are in short supply.
“With nails, of course it’s not the end of the world if you don’t have it,” said Stephanie Mooij, a nail technician in Raleigh who started doing house calls after the salon she worked at closed temporarily. “But if they don’t look good and they’re not kept up, it’s kind of like mental health status, you know? You look down and it’s like, ‘Everything’s falling apart, and my nails are falling apart.’ ”
The U.S. hair and nail business was forecast to have $64 billion in 2020 before the pandemic struck, according to IbisWorld, and was slated to take in $5.2 billion in revenue. The industries employ more than 1.7 million people; many are being sorely missed by their clients. Since social distancing began, social media has been bombarded with messages of desperate longing for stylists — with some people trying to do the job themselves, to disastrous results.
After her salon closed, Mooij’s regular clients started peppering her with texts and calls, asking whether she’d come to their homes to fix their nails. She realized she might be able to support herself this way until her salon reopened. She already had a cache of N95 masks, which she wears to protect herself from chemicals in the salon. She can’t offer her normal range of services because of her limited supplies, so she’s cut her prices.
At 29, Mooij says she is less concerned about coming down with covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, because she has read that younger people are at a lower risk. She and her husband are both Filipino immigrants (she was naturalized last year), and they are both still working, even as communities around North Carolina have stay-at-home orders.
“If you can work, you shouldn’t depend on the government because other people might need that,” Mooij said. “While you still can, try not to be a burden. At least that’s what we think."
Alex filed for unemployment, but he hasn’t heard back. He’s one of nearly 3.3 million Americans who filed for unemployment last week, a record-shattering surge that reflects the economic devastation of the coronavirus.
But for those who have always made house calls, this is boom time. Many say their phones are buzzing with texts and calls from new clients. But the strangeness of this upended world still seeps in, said Rene Guemps, a Manhattan barber who’s been cutting hair for 28 years.
Guemps left his last barbershop years ago to focus entirely on house calls because the money was better and because he enjoyed the intimacy and immediacy of meeting his clients where they are. But he is still adjusting to new routines the outbreak requires. And sometimes clients seem afraid when they open the door.
“Some of them, they panic and stay away,” Guemps said. “It’s almost like, ‘Doesn’t this guy know he’s going to have to get close to me at some point?’ I had one guy a couple days ago … I’m standing at the door and he’s all the way across the living room, talking and telling me what to do."
Now, Guemps wears a surgical mask at all times and constantly sprays his clothes and shoes with Lysol. He washes his hands for a full 30 seconds upon entering a client’s home, then puts on gloves, even though cutting hair with gloves is a nightmare. He makes the client wear a mask, too. Sometimes he has to discourage talking, because it’s tough enough to get a clean cut without the client’s head moving.
Fewer than 50 percent of hair salons are still open, according to BehindtheChair.com. Of those that remain open, stylists have had their hours severely cut and must adhere to rigorous new sanitary practices. Gretchen Everton, a hair stylist and sales consultant with Salon Service Group in Tulsa, said one salon she works with had clients sit in their cars while their hair color processed to avoid having more than 10 people inside at once.
“People are serious about getting their hair done,” Everton said. “It’s about more than just getting your gray hairs covered up. This is a very personal relationship. We touch people more in a 30-minute period than a doctor does. It’s a therapy session. ”
Mick Stewart, a Houston personal trainer, used to see 10 to 20 clients a week at the gym he runs on the first floor of his townhouse. He said most people around him didn’t start paying attention to the coronavirus until they saw it on Drudge Report. Now he’s seeing 40 to 50 clients a week, the busiest he’s ever been.
Stewart can see the toll of the pandemic and its effect on his clients’ faces when they walk in. They tell him about their struggles to stay motivated while working from home and living in their sweatpants. But trainers are like a “pastor, psychologist and boss all rolled into one,” Stewart said, and his goal is to give his cooped-up clients the discipline they need to maintain a sense of routine.
“The objective of trainers now is to really put people through a tough workout so that they can reorient themselves to normality: eat healthy, set a schedule, reinforce self-discipline during quarantine,” Stewart said, “and hold off on those things like booze and drugs that can send many clients spiraling into a mental health emergency.”
Lionel Burgess, an Oakland, Calif., bus driver and DJ, used to be a full-time barber and still cuts hair occasionally. As he watched the outbreak worsen, he thought of the elderly and disabled clients he used to have in his chair, who might be too afraid now to risk venturing out to a barbershop. Burgess, 36, made a post on Craigslist, offering to drive up to 150 miles to give haircuts.
People are happier to see him now, he notices, more grateful for the attention and conversation. He is proud to be able to make them feel more like themselves.
“That’s what I’m there for,” Burgess said. “Just to give them support and show them love and let them know that somebody’s still here.”