Hair salons and barbershops throughout Southern California — including in Gardena, Claremont and south Orange County — joined potentially hundreds of others throughout the state in defying coronavirus health orders on Monday, Aug. 17, by welcoming customers inside.
Salon owners across faced stiff fines or other consequences on Monday when they decided to open their doors to customers, despite bans on doing so in counties on the state’s COVID-19 watch list, which health officials have said are meant to help prevent the coronavirus from spreading.
Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties remain on the watch list.
It was unclear how many Southern California businesses reopened, though about 300 salon owners statewide had registered with the Open Safe California initiative, an organization based in the Bay Area that was the driving force behind the act of defiance. While personal care businesses can’t welcome customers inside, they can operate outside — but many business owners have called this option expensive, impractical, and lacking in the safety and privacy their customers expect. The businesses that opened Monday appear as if they will keep operations open until forced to shut down, according to multiple salon owners, including Shayana Flick, a San Francisco salon owner and one of the organizers of the push to reopen.
Yet state and local officials warned salons against defying orders, with the state cosmetology board and health officials saying they could be hit with hefty fines or potentially lose their licenses.
Various groups, though, have lobbied the state to allow salons to resume indoor operations. So Monday’s protest, according to three local salon owners who participated, was a last resort and, though they were nervous, it felt good to be back at work.
“Coming in today I was nervous,” said Lu Garcia Reynoso, who owns Barber Society in Gardena. “That’s not something I’m used to, being nervous about coming in to work.”
Reynoso opened her shop at noon Monday, for the first time since the pandemic shuttered her business in March. Defying health orders was a risk she was willing to take, she said.
“On one side I can lose it all,” she said. “But, if I wait around for another five months, I’m gonna lose it all anyway.”
Reynoso said she plans to open again Tuesday and the next day and so on.
The fate of their businesses has been an ever-present concern for many shop and restaurant owners during the pandemic; restaurants, like salons, can only have customers outside in counties on the watch list.
Amber O’Hara, who also joined the protest, operates two salons in Mission Viejo and San Juan Capistrano. She said she has lost more than $200,000 since the start of the coronavirus shutdown.
“As a salon owner, I can’t afford not to open my business,” O’Hara said. “The act of opening up is our industry’s way of coming together and saying, ‘Enough is enough.’”
But then there are the health concerns.
Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office referred questions to the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology. The cosmetology board, for its part, wrote in a statement that it was sympathetic to the ever-changing environment caused by the pandemic, but “strongly encourages establishments to not defy the public health orders.”
If they do, the board said, it will enforce industry laws.
“For salons that put public health and safety at risk by not following the order,” the statement said, “the Board will pursue action against their license.”
But Victor Valverde, owner of Kut Haus in Claremont, pushed back on the notion that salons put public health at risk.
Salons and barbershops are generally cleaner than other businesses that can open, he said, such as restaurants and retail stores.
But grocery stores and restaurants — which, even at the pandemic’s height, could still offer take out and delivery — have been considered essential services from the start.
Still, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has endorsed safety measures for salon and other similar businesses around the country.
“We clean everything,” said Valverde, whose Yale Avenue shop also closed in March. “We clean our stations, we clean our tools. It doesn’t make sense at all. Two plus two is not adding up.”
Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, however, urged salon owners to follow the rules during a Monday press conference.
There is emerging evidence, Ferrer said, that suggested transmission rates are significantly higher in indoor settings than outdoor.
“This is a state order for us to move all of these sectors outside,” Ferrer said. “As long as we can’t reduce our community transmission rate well enough to be able to say to the state that we can get off the state’s monitoring list, we’ll be subject to this restriction.”
But opening up again, both Reynoso and Valverde said, provides another type of service customers need, especially during the pandemic: unofficial therapy sessions.
It’s not just about transforming the client physically, Reynoso said, it’s about the connection — and that’s needed now more than ever to balance the isolation from the coronavirus lock down.
“We’re there with you through all your highs and your lows,” Reynoso said. “We’re behind the chair for every aspect of your life, for the weddings, the divorces, we’re there for all of it.”
“We’re not registered mental health doctors,” he added, “but sometimes you need an ear, you need a shoulder, and that’s all gone.”
But what will they do if someone from the state licensing board or health agency comes knocking?
“I’m terrified, it’s horrible,” said O’Hara, a 22-year veteran of the industry. “But I weighed the pros and cons and I know our procedures are safe.”
If an official arrives at her door, O’Hara said, “I won’t physically let them in.”
Valverde said he wasn’t even hopeful he’d get that far.
“My fear is we’ll permanently shut down before I ever get the chance of being reprimanded,” Valverde said. “That’s my greatest fear.”
Staff writers Lisa Jacobs, Hunter Lee and Hayley Munguia contributed to this report.