Santa Barbara hair stylist Raquel Mendoza has spent the past few weeks fixing her client’s mistakes.
“Girlfriends cutting boyfriends’ hair and the opposite. Using all kinds of tools, even chicken scissors,” she laughs. “Oh my god, one client came with one side on top of the ear and the other side passing her chin. I'm like, ‘I don't know how we're gonna even those two sides!’”
Last month, Governor Gavin Newsom announced new guidelines for hair and nail salons that have been shuttered since March.
They can reopen, but outdoors only and with masks and strict sanitary protocols in place.
That’s easier said than done. Most salons don’t have the space necessary to move their business outside, nor clients willing to get their hair cut on the street.
Mendoza is one of the lucky ones. Mi Salon opens out onto a French Riviera-style pedestrian courtyard, complete with a soothing water fountain and ample shade.
“If we start with a slow day, we end up getting really busy as people is [sic] just passing by and they remember, ‘Oh yeah, I need a haircut, I should take advantage,’” she says.
Before the pandemic, the salon would see about 10 customers a day. Despite a slight uptick in walk-ins, that number is way down.
And the cuts are bare bones: no shampooing, no hair dying, no highlights, no treatments. Very few people are looking for bridal updos or other fancy styling right now, and most of her older clientele aren’t risking coming in at all.
So her cashflow is minimal.
Many hair salons chose not to reopen outdoors at all.
“Most of my clients like to be pampered,” says Fabian Hernandez, who owns Sequel Salon in Santa Barbara. “They like to relax and close their eyes, and it’s very hard when you hear all these trucks, cars, pedestrians walking by. And occasionally you get the homeless screaming and yelling. You’re not going to get the experience.”
Hernandez has kept his storefront shuttered and is going to his clients’ homes instead.
Hair stylists must also contend with a new issue: weather.
“We experienced fog and wind. It can get really cold, but for the most part throughout the day, it gets really hot,” says Luis Prieto, who owns Visionz Barbershop in Culver City. “The first week that I was working outside, I got a sunburn on my neck and customers complained.”
But he says cutting hair feels riskier outside, even during a pandemic. Inside his shop, he can set a high standard of sanitation and control who comes in.
“Out here, people walk by and they're not wearing their mask or throwing trash,” he says. “A lot of insects come in. The hair is blowing from one customer to another. You don’t want somebody’s hair all over you, you know?”
And hanging over his head is a big question: How much longer can he keep this up before he has to fold his 1-year-old business? His landlord still expects him to pay rent, even if it has to be in delayed payments. He received a loan through the Small Business Administration, but it’s not forgivable. So he’s going into debt.
“I wish and I hope that it doesn't go for no more than a month. I don't think I can handle any more,” he says. “And if the weather gets more extreme, we will probably have to cancel whatever appointments we have for the day or week.”
Rent is the biggest thing weighing on salon owners, most of whom are taking it month by month.
“I think we can keep it up around one or two months with the rents. After that, I don't know what will happen,” says Quan Nguyen, who manages SB Nail Bar along State Street, Santa Barbara’s main promenade.
The space costs more than $6,000 a month to rent, and Nguyen says the landlord expected a check during the four months when the nail salon was completely closed.
Luckily, the city shut down State Street to cars in May to allow pedestrians to walk more freely and restaurants to expand their outdoor seating. So every morning, Nguyen and his staff set up two big tents and a dozen chairs in the middle of the street, and roll out carts filled with polish remover, cuticle cream and hand sanitizer.
Employees giving pedicures wear masks and face shields. Manicures are done through a plexiglass shield with an opening just big enough for the hand.
Nguyen says business is down overall, but setting up outdoors is attracting newcomers who like the al fresco experience.
“During the pandemic, it's cool because you get to actually see their work,” says Jennifer Robinson, who typically does her nails at home. “If you're just going to walk past the establishment, you don't get to see what they really do. Walking out here, you get to see what they offer.”
She’s set up next to a free newspaper stand along the sidewalk. She doesn’t get to relax in a fancy massage chair, which can’t get plugged in outside. And the foot bath is a tub of warm water, sans jets.
“It's a little awkward, getting your feet done outside,” she admits. “People are walking by with ice cream and food, and you don't want everybody else in your business, but it's okay. It’s fun.”
Some hair and nail salons may choose to keep a chair or two outside for those who prefer the fresh air, even after they’re allowed to start operating indoors again. Just like at a restaurant, you may start to get this question: Would you prefer to sit inside or out?