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‘We’re not out of the woods yet’: Baltimore County hair salons, barbershops reopen with eye toward safety

Along with trimming overgrown quarantine 'dos and fixing haircuts desperately improvised in bathrooms, safety for clients and staff is among their top concerns, say salon and barbershop owners in Baltimore County as they slowly begin to reopen.

“We are correcting home hair fiascos but it’s not, it really hasn’t, been bad," said Jess Neuedorfer, a stylist at Tease Hair Salon & Boutique in Cockeysville.

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“This is my first time back in ages,” said Essex resident Amy Giffin from behind a face mask as she sat in Tease Hair Salon waiting to have her hair colored Thursday morning. Her appointment was rescheduled from mid-March, after salons and other nonessential businesses were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I look like a witch,” she said ruefully.

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“We like to do a lot of taking care of our customers, making them feel like this is a bit of an escape,” said Kathy Meiller, co-owner of Narcissus Salon and Spa in Catonsville, but “it’s a balancing act, too,” to bring back business and keep customers and staff safe.

Now reopening in lockstep with orders issued by Gov. Larry Hogan, Baltimore County began allowing retailers, hair salons and barbershops, tanning salons, tattoo shops, massage parlors and nail salons to reopen June 5 under certain restrictions: Services must be appointment-based, and the number of people inside cannot surpass 50% capacity.

Salon owners, however, say reopening safely has been a heavy lift, and many were still working on how to reopen a week after the moratorium on their services was lifted.

“It’s definitely been an emotional roller coaster of uncertainty and bursts of faith,” said Kristen Leister, who co-owns the Narcissus Salon with Meiller. “We cannot wait to reopen, but we had to wait until it was feasible.”

Narcissus, where the owners of the Bloomsbury Avenue salon opted to shutter its doors just before Hogan mandated statewide closures of nonessential businesses, plans to reopen Tuesday, June 16, with stylist stations spread 6 feet apart, the distance recommended by health experts to mitigate potentially spreading the coronavirus.

The Maryland Board of Cosmetologists, the regulatory body that sets guidelines for salons and barbershops, has released a checklist by which hairstylists should abide. The list includes numerous, detailed steps required before reopening and outlines several ongoing considerations for stylists, including keeping a first-aid kit and hand sanitizer at each station, more stringent sanitizing practices and ensuring that employees wear masks and gloves at all times.

Public health experts say hairstyling presents a medium to high risk for contracting coronavirus, but that the chance is lessened if both the client and stylist wear masks and limit conversations.

The “new normal” for now at Narcissus entails temperature checks of employees and clients when they enter the shop. Those with temperatures higher than 99 degrees will be asked to leave. Instead of waiting inside the salon, customers with appointments will remain in the parking lot before being called in. The wine, tea and snacks once offered to patrons have been done away with for now.

“We like to do a lot of taking care of our customers, making them feel like this is a bit of an escape,” Leister said. “Some of the extras we pride ourselves in, unfortunately, we’re not able to do right now. It’s sort of just back to basics, basic service and needs.”

Although disinfecting hair care items between clients was already common practice, stylists are now being asked to clean much more frequently with a squeezed supply chain, Neuedorfer said.

While "we basically have to wipe the shop down after every client,” disinfectant products purchased from distributors for salon use are scarcer, Neuedorfer said.

Barbicide, the hospital-grade disinfectant used by Neuedorfer and Tease Hair Salon owner Jenny Newberger (and many other salon operators), has been hard to find, and orders are taking longer to process. The salon put off its reopening until it was able to secure supplies.

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“We have some because we have to have it at all times, but if we’re going to continue to operate, we have to get more, and we’re using it more,” Neuedorfer said.

Fielding customer appointments also has been taxing for stylists as they reschedule a backlog of pre-booked appointments between March and June.

“It’s really overwhelming. We have 10 weeks full of clients that all want to come right now,” Neuedorfer said.

Meanwhile, Leister and Meiller are working to renovate the second floor of the Narcissus salon to bring in enough money to pay the 10 employees they were able to bring back.

Prior to the pandemic, Narcissus employed 17 staff who were paid by the hour, a compensation model that is uncommon for salons, where stylists typically rely on commission.

“It’s challenging when your business is your life and you care so much; we take it seriously that other people depend on us for their incomes,” Leister said.

Leister said her staff is made up of “a really strong group of talented, talented women,” adding that they will have no problem rebuilding, "but we’re not out of the woods yet.”

At Tease Hair Salon, Neuedorfer said she wasn’t sure how sustainable it is to operate under the current restrictions.

“If it’s going to be a longer-term situation where we can only operate at 50% capacity, I think we would probably have to re-evaluate our pricing structure,” she said.

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