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‘There’s too many unknowns’: Many Maryland barbers hesitant to open for essential workers amid coronavirus risk

Although Maryland last week opened the door for barbers and stylists to serve some essential workers, many operators remain closed, citing the health risks and the difficulty of maintaining social distancing.

“That’s the thing that I was kicking over: Is it really worth it?” said Oscar Bueno, who runs OurSpot out of the Phoenix Salon Suites in South Baltimore’s Riverside neighborhood. “I came to the conclusion that it really isn’t.”

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Bueno said a close family member has a compromised immune system, and the idea of being a carrier of the coronavirus isn’t worth opening back up, even though he had several customers reach out the day after the order was written.

The governor’s Office of Legal Counsel announced April 20 that barbershops and salons were to remain closed in general but could perform appointment-only services for essential workers whose employer had documented grooming standards that needed to be met.

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Under the new guidelines, if a customer could provide written documentation of those standards, and both the barber and salon staff wore masks and were the only people in the building, the service would be allowed. Businesses would have to keep contact information for each customer should someone they serve test positive and others need to be notified of the results.

The assumption, according to the order, was that the exemption would be used “for military personnel, first responders, and other essential workers required to maintain certain, well-documented grooming standards as part of their profession, or where ungroomed hair could pose a safety risk.”

Jade Flinn, critical care nurse and nurse educator at Johns Hopkins Medicine, said in a statement that barbershops and salons can safely provide services “if necessary precautions are taken, including good infection control practices of workplaces and respiratory etiquette, including masking and coughing/sneezing away from others.

“There will always be a risk taken when venturing into public spaces, including hair salons and barbershops for essential business, so our safety relies upon mutual protective measures.”

The National Association of Barber Boards of America has guidelines on its website for shops to reopen that include many of the precautions outlined in the state’s order, including wearing masks, requiring appointments, and limiting the number of staff and customers inside a shop.

On Friday, Georgia allowed all barbershops and salons to resume operations as part of a partial reopening of the state. At one shop, customers were subject to a temperature check, questioning, mask and gloves, while workers were to be outfitted in gloves, masks, gowns and face shields, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

A spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Labor said there were 52,367 barbers and cosmetologists registered in the state.

The national Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that in 2018, 75% of barbers nationwide were self-employed; the bureau also estimates that 44% of hairdressers, hairstylists and cosmetologists were self-employed.

These barbers and hairdressers have been out of work since the Gov. Larry Hogan ordered Maryland’s nonessential businesses closed on March 23.

Many of the barbershops around the state’s military installations, including Fort Meade and Aberdeen Proving Ground, also have remained closed despite the opportunity to reopen now. Several still had outgoing voicemail messages saying they were closed due to the pandemic, even after the regulations changed.

While some barbershops and salons remain closed, others are gearing to reopen, while making sure to take all precautions to remain safe.

In an email to customers April 22, the QG, a department store in Baltimore that provides haircuts among other services, said it has “received a deluge of requests/questions.” The store wrote it would try to find a safe, orderly way to provide services for essential personnel who needed to keep up with grooming standards.

However, some services, such as razor outline and hair rinsing, would not be provided. Pre-payment for services also would be required to eliminate hand-to-hand contact and customers would be required to sign a waiver. The store also wrote it was reviewing its pricing, given the “extra manpower, cleaning resources and the additional time we will be needing to comply with these regulations.”

The store did not respond to a request for comment, and its website says it remains closed.

Even the demand that comes from essential workers who need haircuts didn’t create enough business opportunities for many to rush open.

The operator of the Olney barbershop 1 Cut Above posted on Instagram that he wouldn’t be opening because only serving essential workers who could be more exposed to COVID-19 than non-essential workers who are staying at home is “counterintuitive.”

“I’m pretty healthy myself,” Bueno said. “But to put other people at risk — the thing is we don’t know who has what, and this is something that’s been up in the air since its inception and there’s just too many unknowns. I don’t want to put my people at risk at all.”

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