What will your next appointment look like?
For several weeks in a row, Wilson Eidson spent each day alone in the company of shampoo bottles and hair spray.
His hair salon, Wilson’s on Washington, normally noisy with clients and stylists, was dead quiet, the barber chairs empty.
“It was horrible,” Eidson said. “I was here all by myself, just selling shampoo, hair spray, whatever people needed. But hardly anyone came in. Our sales plummeted.”
In accordance with orders issued by Gov. Henry McMaster in late March, all “close-contact” businesses in South Carolina — such as barbershops, nail salons, tattoo parlors, massage parlors, spas and salons — were forced to close their doors to the public beginning April 1.
It was another 48 days before McMaster lifted those orders, when Wilson’s on Washington and all other hair salons and barbershops in the state were given the green light to reopen to the public on May 18.
But when customers returned (many with noticeably grayer roots or shaggier hairdos), they found their favorite salons and barbershops, including Wilson’s on Washington, were now operating under entirely new guidelines.
Temperatures checked at the door. Legal release forms. Conversations muffled by masks. Chairs sprayed and wiped down with bleach and disinfectant.
For most customers who came out to get their hair cut and styled, those health and safety guidelines were enough to set them at ease. Others viewed the guidelines as entirely unnecessary, more annoying than reassuring. Still others didn’t come out at all, preferring to stay at home and limit their exposure.
If you plan to head to your local barbershop, here’s what to expect.
Busier than you might think
Wilson’s and other salons and barber shops around Greenville have reported a steady stream of customers in their first week back in business, especially on that first Monday.
“It was our best day ever in history,” Eidson said. “We’ve been in business 37 years and there’s never been anything like that.”
Business has since leveled out to rates typical before the lockdowns, although customers should still call ahead to make appointments, as cleaning protocols might slow down the process.
Johnny Muhammad of Distinguished Gentleman’s Barber Shop on Laurens Road said they would be accepting clients on an appointment-only basis for the foreseeable future.
“We’re open, seeing a lot of business, but make sure you call ahead,” Muhammad said. “We want to make sure we’re not crowded in there.”
Every barbershop or salon owner interviewed said their stylists and barbers would be wearing face masks and gloves as a precautionary measure — good news for those in need of extra reassurance, but bad news for those who just want things to go back to normal.
“I’ve had probably a third of my clients tell me, ‘Get that mask off your face so we can hear you!’ But I have to serve as an example,” Eidson said. “You have to learn to get used to it.”
Eidson said he wants people feel safe when they come into the salon, even if that means donning bulky safety gear.
“If that means you want to look like one of those people in Walmart you see on social media who show up covered in trash bags with grocery bags on their feet, or scuba gear on their face, we’ll let you come in that way,” Eidson said, laughing. “Trust me, we can work with that.”
For Renee Browder, a client who got her hair cut and colored the first week salons were back open, the safety measures were a relief.
“It sets me at ease, certainly,” Browder said. “Sure, it’s all very strange, but hey, it’s a brave new world.”
As for the stylists themselves, for whom the job is often just as much about communication as it is about cutting hair, the masks can prove tricky.
“It’s a lot of “Huh? Huh? Can you say that again?’” said Emily Wilson, who’s been styling hair in Greenville for 15 years. “Not to mention, you’re out of breath because of the mask, so I was really exhausted the other day. But you adapt.”
At Wilson’s, all clients have their temperatures checked with an electronic wand when they enter the lobby. Masks are available for those who don’t have one. Legal forms are signed to let people know there might be some risk involved in entering.
But it’s worth noting that salons are not legally required by the state to take any such precautions. The guidelines for close-contact businesses issued by McMaster are just that: guidelines, not laws.
Wanda Hightower, former chairperson of the South Carolina State Board of Cosmetology, said the organization has issued additional guidelines specifically related to those in the cosmetology business, which include the implementation of digital check-in processes, limiting the number of customers in the waiting area, developing cleaning schedules and keeping clients at staggered stations.
“We’ve always had safety and sanitation guidelines, because we’ve had to be aware of communicable diseases even before the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hightower said. “Now we’re enhancing them because of the contagion degree of this particular virus and given how our business is, by design, based on one-on-one contact.”
Hightower said she isn’t sure how the reopening will proceed — if restrictions will be relaxed or reinstated.
“Things may relax some as we move forward, or we might decide we need to limit the number of customers in a salon at one time,” Hightower said. “Right now, everything is up in the air.”
Essential or not?
Hair salons and barbershops may have been shut down for several weeks, but that doesn’t mean people weren’t still getting their hair cut and styled. All the stylists interviewed said they knew of many of their peers who continued visiting their clients at their homes or having clients visit them for under-the-table appointments.
“I won’t throw anyone under the bus, but I know they were doing that,” Eidson said. “At least here in the salon, this is a much healthier, much more structured and sanitary way of doing things.”
Hair salons and barbershops were among the first businesses to be shut down, having been deemed “nonessential,” but both the stylists and customers we spoke to were quick to dispute that.
“The psychological benefits are tremendous,” said Browder, who was in the process of getting her hair colored. “The vibe of my whole life changes for me. You just feel so much better.”
Eidson said he would take anyone to task who said hair salons were nonessential.
“People need it psychologically,” he said, echoing Browder. “In these depressing times, it’s a way to bring happiness.”
Browder said she wasn’t unique in going back out. All of her friends were going out to get their hair cut and styled too. As for her, she admitted she was a little nervous at first about coming back in, but something changed her mind.
“I looked in the mirror and saw my gray roots,” she said, laughing. “That did it for me.”