Salon owner Ramona Potts has already lost one customer who wouldn’t wait any longer and found someone else to do a hair-coloring treatment during the pandemic.
Another customer calls about every three days asking her to cover his gray.
“I tell him, ‘Wear a baseball cap,’” said Potts, owner of the Atomic Kitten Salon at 1920 Eye St., who has an elderly mother at home and worries about COVID-19 exposure.
She has another reason for turning away business in lean times: The state has threatened to fine and pull the license of any barbers and beauty professionals who defy Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-home order by keeping customers looking good during the quarantine.
The situation has created as many temptations as it has risks for local barbers, stylists and manicurists.
Lured by customers offering to pay three times the normal rate and the occasional $100 tip, some are operating out of their garages, entering darkened salons through the back door or going to people’s homes to deliver services in secret.
“It’s a lot of kind of sneaking around,” said Bakersfield cosmetologist Tanya Murrell, who said it’s been two months since she worked at a salon, her main income. “So far, I’ve been telling customers, ‘No, I can’t do it.’”
The quarantine is devastating stylists, barbers and salon owners who have worked hard over many years and now worry state restrictions will cost them their customers, their lease and their businesses, said Fred Jones, counsel and public policy advocate at the Professional Beauty Federation of California trade group.
Salon owners are being hurt because, under a recent legislative change, many no longer employ stylists and so they don’t qualify for federal paycheck loans.
Stylists and barbers suffer, too, Jones said, because they often under-report their earnings behind the chair, which leads to slim unemployment benefits during the coronavirus crisis.
The federation sued California’s executive branch in federal court last week in an effort to get barbers and beauty professionals back to work. Jones said the state will have to respond by 3 p.m. today if it hopes to avoid an emergency injunction.
“The governor should partner with state-licensed professionals in bringing these services back in the controlled, clean and safe environment known as our licensed salons,” he said.
The state Board of Barbering and Cosmetology, whose members are named as co-defendants in the trade group’s lawsuit, said by email Tuesday it is sympathetic to the “ever-changing environment” its licensees face during the pandemic.
But because its role is protecting consumers’ health and safety, it’s asking people to avoid salons while the board prepares a checklist for them to reopen after the state ban is lifted.
Local hair-cutters say they’re cautiously optimistic after Newsom announced Monday some salons may be allowed to open the first week of June. He suggested widespread reopenings could come “within a few weeks.”
The downtime has been especially hard on barber and cosmetology students. Representatives of two local schools — Bakersfield Barber College and Lyle’s College of Beauty — said graduates aren’t able to take their licensing tests and near-graduates can’t put in the work needed to finish their educations.
They said once the schools do reopen things will be different: There will probably be no reception areas, customers will be allowed in on a more limited basis and class sizes will be cut.
“We’re usually pretty packed with customers so we’re actually having to take things a lot slower,” said Mary Madrid, vice president of the Barber College. She added there is still no firm indication when such schools may reopen.
Potts, the owner of Atomic Kitten, said her landlord gave her a break on rent during the quarantine and she’s passing along the savings to the 10 stylist-tenants she rents space to. But they’re not her employees and she can’t tell them when they can and can’t work.
On Tuesday, a stylist there went ahead and colored the hair of a customer whose roots had grown out more than an inch and a half. Customer and cosmetologist alike wore masks.
Potts said she is actively preparing for the day when her salon is cleared to reopen by the state. There are temperature readers for checking customers before they enter, disclosure forms that must be signed prior to the delivery of service and disinfectant dispensers at every work station.
Still to come are ultraviolet lights for sanitizing work spaces overnight and curtains being put up as soon as mid-week to isolate hair-cutting stations.
Trish Labbe, manager at the Barber College, said she recently decided to cut her own hair and messed up. Noticing it was uneven, she kept trimming and now wears a hat or pulls her hair back in a ponytail.
She said the quarantine has taught people what’s really important in life.
“It’s the roof over your head and a haircut,” she said.