SALT LAKE CITY – As the state begins to rebound from COVID-19 closures, hair services are among the first to be re-offered to Utahns – but some shops are choosing not to open their doors amid safety concerns for employees.
On the corner of 800 South and Main Street, you’ll find Salt Lake Barber Company. A locally owned barbershop serving up cuts, shaves, ‘vibes’ and right now, temporary closures.
“We’ve now been closed since the 28th of March,” co-owner Isaac Atencio said as he occupied a sole barber chair in the light-less shop. “I think for us the writing was on the wall, we knew it was coming.”
The day they closed up shop was the same day they found out a customer had tested positive for COVID-19.
“It made the decision [to close] all the easier at that time,” Atencio said. “It adds a little extra stress knowing it’s that easy to come in contact with someone [who is infected].”
Since then, the floors have been hairless, the sinks have been spotless, the chairs have been open and the register has been empty.
Atencio said they encouraged their barbers to apply for the pandemic unemployment assistance, but despite applying for aid – neither the business nor the barbers have received any financial assistance.
“Barbers are really looking forward to getting back to work, but a lot of that is being driven by the fact that they have not had income for nearly two months,” said Atencio.
On Wednesday, Governor Herbert lowered Utah’s risk level for COVID-19, allowing certain businesses to begin opening starting May 1 -- including barbershops and salons.
“There is a lot of excitement being driven by customers,” Atencio said. “However, I don’t think a lot of them realize that barbershop and salon experience at this point is going to change drastically.”
The new lowered risk level coincides with a laundry list of changes including a requirement that both stylists and clients wear face masks. However, it is unclear as to whether or not the client needs to bring their own, or if one needs to be provided.
“The three main services we offer are haircuts, beard trims and shaves, we’re in essence having to take shaves and beard trims off the table… we have barbers that do half of their day in beard trims solely,” Atencio said. “We’re being asked to operate at a loss and that makes things really difficult.”
Among other changes, barbershops and salons will also be required to keep clients 6-feet apart to abide by social distancing and maintain extra sanitation.
“We’re being asked to social distance, 6-feet, but it’s very hard to do that when you’re standing next to someone cutting their hair,” Atencio said. “On top of that we’re being asked to acquire things such as cleaning supplies, personal protection equipment, all of which are in high demand and limited availability.”
In Atencio’s shop, the chairs are already enough space apart. They have also been able to buy two 5-gallon drums of hand sanitizer and 5-gallons of virucidal cleaner, but have yet to find somewhere with masks and gloves in-stock.
If you ask Atencio, as far as the May 1 opening is concerned, “100-percent it’s too soon.”
“We are definitely not a minority in wanting to wait a little extra time,” Atencio said.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize that by not having an income, it’s kind of forcing [barbershops and salons] to open, so they’re kind of creating this sense of excitement to get clients in the chair, and it’s kind of a skewed perspective,” he said. “People are also opening for fear of losing clients to the guys that are opening, that is a legitimate fear in this process.”
Even though there are concerns about potential client loss, Atencio believes at this point it is about safety.
“This virus, there’s still a lot of unknowns,” said Atencio. “Just by having a client touch a drape or touch a chair… even though we’re going to heavily sanitize, it’s still kind of unknown as to [if] these precautions will be 100-percent effective and how do we prevent our shop from being a hub for infection.”
“We’re not dictating when we’re going to open, we’re making sure this is a conversation everyone is onboard with,” he continued.”
The company said they have concerns their employees will not be able to receive the pandemic unemployment assistance, should they remain closed. Still, they say they will not open until at least May 15th, if not later.