Just last week, the State of Connecticut released Phase 1 reopening guidelines for hair salons and barbershops, with rules and restrictions those businesses must follow in order to reopen on May 20.

The CTReopens guidelines list strict rules for sanitation, capacity, personal protective equipment, ventilation, eliminating non-essential amenities, and conducting daily health checks. However, many stylists consider these rules too vague or not enough.

Philip Dimarino, owner of Philip Salon & Spa in Wilton, said he is confused and disappointed by the state’s inclusion of hair salons and barbershops into phase 1.

“Everything is six feet with the social distancing. We’re supposed to work that way between one stylist and another; however, we can touch people’s faces with our hands while we’re cutting hair. So that’s where the discrepancy comes in,” Dimario said.

“I’m just confused on why it’s us,” he added. “It’s almost like we’re an experiment.”

Unlike the other phase 1 business sectors, hair salons and barbershops work in unavoidably very close contact with customers for their appointments, for extended periods of time.

“We probably spend eight hours a day within one foot of our clients,” said Jocelyn Furtado, owner of Love + Light Salon Studio, who rents a studio in Sola Salon in Wilton Center. “So that’s just the concern. We have to be extremely proactive, even more so than what they’re telling us to be, just to be cautious.”

Given this worry, many stylists are going above and beyond to ensure their own safety and that of their customers before they reopen. However, they say the state’s rules are somewhat of a moving target, such as changing blow-drying from prohibited to allowed; there’s also confusion about whether face shields should or shouldn’t be used–all of it makes reopening a challenge.

“One minute this, the next minute that, every day is changing,” Dimarino said. “And when you are a small business owner and you’re trying to set up your salon to open, you really, really need some black and white guidelines of what you need to do, so you can prep yourself by opening.”

Why opening isn’t really optional

Though the state mandate does not require shops to reopen, competition and fixed prices are forcing many owners into re-opening, even if they’re not sure it’s the best thing.

Michele Mastri, owner of Eco Chic Salon, said that as an owner of a small, new business, opening “is more of a necessity.”

“I personally haven’t gotten any stimulus, anything yet. So for me, it’s really not even an option not to open,” Mastri said.

Although Mastri and other stylists adjusted their business models during the shutdown by selling gift cards and products on eCommerce sites, business is nowhere near normal levels. Jeanine Sieranski, who owns Salon Citrine at Sola Salon, said that there is no long-term, economically feasible solution for providing services without close contact.

“It’s a hard thing to figure out because it is a person-to-person service industry,” Sieranski said. “It’s not something where I can just drop off something and have the person fix their hair or do the service because it is an art.”

Sola Salon, according to renter Sieranski, has been working with individual stylists through the crisis to help with finances, such as giving rent forgiveness until the May 20 reopening date. She said that being “in a space where I know that they have my back,” has made a huge difference in helping her pay other bills without stress, a positive flip side to the crisis.

Dimarino said that considering restaurants are limited to only outside table service, and nail salons and movie theaters aren’t allowed to open, he is confused as to why barbershops and hair salons are considered different. But by not opening he’d face losing clients to competitors. He’s conducted virtually no business during the shutdown, yet still had to cover his fixed costs, like rent and utilities.

Though Dimarino plans to be at the salon starting May 21 (if the state doesn’t push back the reopening date), it will be a “soft reopening” with no other stylists but him in the shop. He is not bringing back any employees yet out of fear for their safety and concern for their economic well-being:  if business doesn’t bounce back, it might not be worth them sacrificing their unemployment checks.

Cleaning above and beyond

No matter how stylists feel about the reopening, many are going to extremes to make sure their spaces are as disinfected and clean as possible to protect their employees, customers, and themselves.

Even before the shutdown, Dimarino would spend at least 20 minutes thoroughly disinfecting everything between clients–something he said was “extremely exhausting, extremely costly and extremely time-consuming.” He plans to continue the same routine upon his reopen.

Dimarino has already met with the Wilton Health Department as well to evaluate his salon. He said the department has gone “above and beyond to help [small businesses] reopen and give us standards,” even offering his business face masks.

Mastri said Eco Chic is planning to reopen on May 20 with limited staff. However, she is planning to reach beyond the state’s guidelines to ensure the safety of her staff and customers.

Eco Chic Salon will have sanitizers and masks for customers to use when it re-opens on May 20 in Wilton Center.

“Upon entering each client will have to have a mask on and will need to use our hand sanitizer. They will be given a bag with a sanitized smock that they can change into, and they can use that bag to put their clothes and their personal belongings [like a] pocketbook or whatever into the bag, which they can keep closed next to them,” Mastri said. “We are going to disinfect with disinfectant. We also have a Steam Machine that is high heat and disinfects viruses and bacteria 100% that we will use to clean the salon.”

In addition, Eco Chic staff will wear hair coverings, face masks, face shields, and gloves, and change their equipment between each client. She plans on limiting services to just hair cuts and color, and will put up dividers if business gets busier.

Sieranski used the downtime of the shut down to access free education software for hairstylists and to network with other salon owners around the country who have reopened to ask about their experiences. This included getting certified by Barbicide, an EPA-certified disinfection company for beauty products, for cleaning her salon safely.

Sieranski added that she is going to take extra precautions to make sure no one touches the same surfaces, covering door handles and credit card machines in saran wrap in case they are accidentally touched, and other steps make sure she and her customers are in as safe an environment as possible.

“There’s going to be a questionnaire that I’m creating based off of different questionnaires that I’ve seen in the medical field and from hair salons, just making sure that people are feeling well. And I’m waving any cancellation fees during this time until we get back to normal because… I don’t want that to be an issue,” she said. “I just want it to be a positive experience [that] helps people feel somewhat normal again but in a safe environment.”

Part of creating that safe environment involves making alternative options for customers who might not be as comfortable coming into the salon, including offering house calls to cut a customer’s hair outside of their home while still taking all the precautions.

“I’m in the service industry so if my clients are not feeling comfortable I have the responsibility as a professional to do what’s right for them,” Sieranski said. “That is that I do house calls which is not something I normally do, but I will in this circumstance.”

Going back–emotions and remaining concerns

Dimarino said one of his biggest concerns is being able to have enough customers to make reopening sustainable.

“What if we have a little bit of demand for a week, and then after that nobody wants to come because they’re scared? That is the biggest risk that [my staff and I] all go through every single day,” he said.

Even upon reopening, Dimarino estimates revenue could be down 75% because of the amount of time and money he must devote to cleaning and PPE, and only being able to serve a fraction of his clients at a time.

Love + Light’s Furtado has the same fears, that the financial impact will probably be severe. However, she said that no matter how different it will look, she is excited to go back to work.

“I know it’s going to be quite an adjustment getting used to not doing as many clients and not bringing in potentially anywhere near the revenue we brought in before because we’re slowed down a lot now by all the sanitizing procedures and [limited customers],” she said. “The financial impact is going to probably be the hardest to experience. But I think as long as we keep our clients safe, and give them a beautiful service and a great experience and help lift their spirits a little bit during this time, I think we can just do our best, you know?”

Other stylists are looking forward to going back and are optimistic about the future. Toni Vozella of StyleMeToni, who also rents space from Sola Studio in Wilton, said that she is “booked” for the first couple of weeks–though that means working longer hours–and that 99% of clients she’s heard from are excited. She said she trusts her clients’ discretion about coming in and feels “100% confident going back” at this point.

“I’ve known a lot of my clients for like nine-plus years, and I know that they will not come in if they’re sick, and at the same time they’re required to wear a mask and I’m required to wear a mask, so I don’t think we’ll have any issues,” Vozella said. “So I’m actually excited and cannot wait for the 20th.”

Despite the fact that Mastri will have to operate Eco Chic at a much lower capacity, she’s heard from many customers who “just can’t wait to come in.” With going back, though, comes a mix of emotions.

“I feel so excited to get back to being able to see my customers, I miss them. Being a hairstylist our customers become like our family–sometimes we end up seeing them more frequently, and on more of on a regular basis, than we might see extended family members,” Mastri said. “At the same time, it almost feels like I’m opening my salon for the first time…So I do feel a little anxiety, making sure I have everything just so as far as safety and making everyone feel comfortable.”

Dimarino said that when it comes to customers, he encourages them to put their health first and evaluate the risk.

“Ask yourself one question:  is the risk worth the reward? And if there is no risk in your mind, then it’s no problem. Right. But if it still is risky, don’t do it.”