In the months since salons and barbershops shut their doors due to the coronavirus pandemic, some people have caved, spontaneously snipping their hair until it looked passable for a Zoom call.
But now hair salons are operational in all but two states — California and Hawaii — with partial openings, according to hair expert website behindthechair.com, leaving the shaggier among us wondering: How safe is it to get a trim?
As the coronavirus, which causes the disease covid-19, is mostly transmitted via close contact, public health experts advise against prolonged time with people outside of your household, especially indoors. But epidemiologists say proper protective equipment and other precautions can ensure the virus is not transmitted if you need to be near others.
For instance, wearing masks was credited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for two cases in which infected hair stylists did not pass on the coronavirus to their clients — a promising sign for people harried about the risk of transmission.
Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) got her hair done at a salon in San Francisco. But when surveillance video released Monday revealed she went maskless after her shampoo and rinse, Pelosi was in hot water.
“I don’t wear a mask when I’m washing my hair,” Pelosi said in a press briefing to respond to the backlash, mainly from conservatives. “Do you wear a mask when you’re washing your hair? I always have a mask.”
Pelosi taking her mask off is contradictory to best practices, according to Erin Bromage, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth who wrote a blog post that garnered millions of views about the coronavirus transmission risks associated with everyday activities.
You must wear a mask at all times when you are in the salon chair, Bromage said, adding that it’s possible to hold your mask to your face while your hair is washed or cut.
“There are plenty of ways to do this, but taking a mask off and being indoors for an extended period is the best way to become infected,” he said.
Out of 139 people who visited two Missouri stylists in May who later tested positive for the coronavirus, no one contracted covid-19 symptoms, according to a CDC study in July. The findings indicated that the city’s and businesses’ masking policies worked effectively, the authors wrote.
Bromage said his family resumed getting haircuts in early June, with the family going together to reduce the risk. Their hairdresser offers her services outdoors, but Bromage said he would trust being inside a salon if there are few people and doors and windows open for ventilation.
For people with underlying medical conditions, booking an early appointment is the safest bet that the surfaces are disinfected, Bromage recommended.
Licensed stylists receive training in health safety and have regularly sanitized their equipment since before the pandemic, according to Steve Sleeper, executive director of the Professional Beauty Association, a trade group for salon owners. There are also oversight agencies that regulate these businesses in every state.
Salons have ramped up purchasing more disinfectants and protective equipment. However, a majority of these businesses are independently owned, and another round of shutdowns could send them spiraling into greater financial peril, Sleeper said.
Another comfort is that salons report their clients are generally following masking rules because they typically know their stylist, Sleeper said, unlike other retail spaces such as big box stores, where customers might feel anonymous and confrontational.
Sleeper estimates there are two small groups of people: “die-hard” customers who went back in the chair as soon as they could and people who refuse to step into a salon until there is a vaccine. But the majority, according to Sleeper, are in between those extremes: people who are reluctantly returning for fewer services or vacillating on whether to make an appointment.
“I know a lot of folks want to get back there and get their color touched up, get a good haircut, feel a little pampered,” Sleeper said. “They miss that human interaction. I think that’s what makes our industry so unique. There’s a strong human connection.”
Nationwide, foot traffic to barbershops and hair salons has increased 6 percent, comparing the week of July 5 to the week of Aug. 16, according to aggregated and anonymized cellphone data tracked by SafeGraph, a data firm that analyzes where people are traveling.
This data doesn’t account for all devices — only those with one of the apps SafeGraph uses to track GPS location. Since the data relies on GPS pings and official building footprints, it doesn’t account for people who don’t have phones or those who are visiting outdoor setups, bootleg salons or their stylists’ homes, which has become increasingly common amid restrictions.
California’s foot traffic to barbershops and hair salons jumped by 28 percent from the week of March 22 — the week after the statewide shutdown order — to the week of July 5, according to SafeGraph.
In Los Angeles, celebrity stylist and salon owner Ted Gibson unknowingly opened the embodiment of a socially distanced salon in 2019 with his co-owner, Jason Backe. Their salon, Starring, is designed to cater to celebrities and those seeking privacy.
Customers can use an app to book their appointment, select services and products, and pay.
“It’s just like a ride-share service,” Gibson said. The styling chair is in a “cloud,” a 13-foot tall by 9-foot wide futuristic walled-off space complete with LED light strips that change from daylight to rainbow with a simple verbal command. The two entrances remain locked, and there is no receptionist, meaning the only person a visitor interacts with is their stylist and colorist.
“We wanted to build the salon of the future,” he said, “and we ended up really building the salon of the future.”
Since reopening at 25 percent capacity in August in defiance of Gov. Gavin Newsom (D)’s order to close salons, Gibson said he has added steps to keep himself and his clients safe: Visitors now get a temperature check and a squirt of hand sanitizer with their hot towel. If they don’t have a face covering — or the mask’s straps go around their head instead of looping behind their ears — Gibson offers one.
“We’re in a predicament where do we save our small business or do we follow the guidelines about salons being open,” he said.
Ambushed Salon in Gahanna, Ohio, was booked eight weeks in advance before the virus closed businesses in the state, owner Amy Bush said. When she reopened in mid-May, Bush said, appointments were filled immediately, and the steady stream of clients has continued to visit.
In addition to a “no mask, no service” policy, her salon asks screening questions, requests that clients wash their hands when they enter and no longer uses hand-held blow dryers.
For guests returning to salons, Bush recommends checking with the stylists to see if any policies have changed instead of assuming normalcy as guidelines continue to evolve during the pandemic. She also said people who want additional treatments aside from a cut should make sure their salons still offer those services.
It’s also courteous to give your hairdresser a heads up instead of walking in due to capacity restrictions, said Susan Brinkhaus, executive director of the Salon and Spa Professional Association in Minneapolis.
“Lastly, be patient with the stylist and staff,” Bush said, “and know that everyone is doing their best to take care of you because they do care and want to see you enjoy your visit and have that place where you can relax.”
Lenny Bronner and Reis Thebault contributed to this report.