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Friday, May 8, 2020

'Call it a Mixed Bag' — Cleveland Barbers On Getting Back Behind the Chair Next Week

Posted By on Fri, May 8, 2020 at 11:43 AM

  • Daisun Santana / Photo by Eric Sandy

Daisun Santana just got another text from a guy who needs a haircut. No, he says aloud, sorry, but he can't do that.

It's May 7, hours before Gov. Mike DeWine will announce the plan for barber shops across the state of Ohio to reopen, and Santana is still getting daily requests for an off-the-books haircut.

“Someone called me two minutes ago,” he tells me at CityBreaks Barber Shop on West 25th Street. It's the second location for his barber business, a corner storefront in Clark-Fulton, and he hasn't even had a chance to celebrate a grand opening. The plan was a big party on April 5. Weeks ago. The eight chairs in his shop sit empty, positioned at acute angles and awaiting the ghosts of customers from the future.

“When they call me, they try to convince me,” he says, steely eyes peering out over a white face mask. “And I tell 'em, 'Look, sir, one, I don't cut outside the shop, because I spent a lot of money to create a place to cut hair. And, two, the situation? I cannot risk my business for your look. I need a haircut myself!”

Santana is a competitive breakdancer who broke into the barber business a few years back with a spot in Gordon Square. He closed that shop and moved it to Parma. Before he'd even hit the first anniversary in Parma, the attraction of a neat corner location in Clark-Fulton was enough for him to ink a lease deal and pursue a shop closer to his roots on the west side of Cleveland. He's got 12 employees relying on his business between the two locations. He's been patiently awaiting news from the governor on when he and his team can get back to work.

And, indeed, hours after I leave CityBreaks, DeWine steps up to the podium for his daily press conference. The public had been expecting some sort of news on May 7—some outline of what restaurants and hair salons might look like in the near-term future. On this day, the governor was wearing a necktie from Ashland University.

Barbershops and salons may reopen next Friday, May 15, provided they meet new guidelines crafted by a state committee. The news was welcome and maybe even a little abrupt. Most retail shops were given the green light to reopen on May 12; a more nuanced approach to services like haircuts wasn't expected until later in the month.

“I'm sure that's good news for a lot of people who've been looking to get back, particularly in regard to their hair,” DeWine said. “I know I've heard a lot about that.”

Santana was happy. He immediately posted a video of himself on Facebook, grabbing a pair of golden clippers and breakdancing on the floor of his Parma shop. A message pops up at the end: “We're back!”

But, like anything else in 2020, the story is complicated. Public health norms are heightened to a degree not seen in any current lifetime. Reality itself is a garbled mess of mixed messages, and social stigmas are a powerful force reshaping how we look at one another. What's right and what's wrong? It's not like DeWine is mandating people rush out into the town square and visit restaurants and barber shops en masse. The process will be a slow, diffuse transition into a future that looks only eye-squintingly like the past.

Alex Quintana, owner of Quintana's Barber & Dream Spa in Cleveland Heights, says that the haircutting business is particularly prone to hand-wringing these days. It's an intimate experience, the haircut. He owns a barber shop and a spa and a bar, so he's been attuned to the strata of confusion around the commercial business landscape this year.

“It's a mixed bag, brother,” Quintana says over the phone after DeWine made his May 7 announcement. “We wanted to try and get everything in place to be able to open and feel comfortable to be open, because we have the barber shop and the spa. Not everyone who works in our industry is excited to come back to work, you know? We're all chomping at the bit to get back behind the chair, but some people are anxious. They're apprehensive, you know? And they don't have a significant amount of confidence that this might be the right thing to do this early.”

He contrasts the situation with something like the Kentucky Derby—a starting gun that generates great thrills and speed! Here, though, the May 15 bell tolls cautiously. It's not even entirely clear what will happen on May 15 anywhere in Ohio. Certainly, some customers will be eager to dine out and catch a buzz cut. Others will stay at home and grumble online. But broad swaths of our shared marketplace will feel a sort of consternation. A tussle between intentions.

Quintana says that's understandable. The barber shop is a social institution, after all, and this moment we're stuck in is nothing if not socially distanced.

“The people you're accustomed to seeing every three to six weeks, you haven't seen in, like, 12 weeks,” he says. “You can't even shake their hand or give 'em a bro hug. It's going to be awkward. … It's going to take a lot to get used to. It's going to be very transactional, the experience.”

Debra Penzone, owner of Charles Penzone Inc., helped lead the Personal Services Committee which developed guidelines for barber shops and salons. She spoke during the May 7 press conference and explained what comes next for these businesses: highly regulated appointments, social distancing, face masks, no magazines in the waiting area. It's similar to restaurants and bars, which will reopen in a staggered fashion on May 15 (outdoors) and May 21 (indoors). The idea is to gradually get back to business. In the interim, these places of business will keep occupancy low and emphasize sanitation practices.

“The last thing a barber shop or salon wants to be is a vehicle of transference,” Quintana says.

As long as he can secure his team's personal protective equipment and plexiglass guards in the shop, Quintana says, he'll plan to reopen May 15. The idea is to safely greet customers, service their needs and allow them to exit gracefully. That's the whole point: make it as safe as it's always been, just with a few extra touches.

In the time of COVID-19, it remains to be seen how exactly the barber shop as an institution will change. The modern barber shop is at once a cultural platform and a public forum. It's a gathering place, an intimate reflection of who we are. But we're growing accustomed to maintaining distance at the supermarket and moving on quickly, but so much of what makes our shared spaces special is in the act of lingering. Small talk. Bullshitting. Catching up on spouses, work, the Tribe. But there's something skittish in the air these days; the atmosphere itself is on edge. Business owners now are preparing to meet the needs of an uncertain public—but a public that badly needs its hair cut, pronto.

“We utilize tools on people,” Quintana says. “When barbers first came around, we were dentists and we were doctors as well. That being said, although we don't do those services any longer, we are in that personal space in which very few people are—as either a barber or a stylist. That's what comes into question.”

Mike Sarsfield is a barber at Carlo's Barbershop, an old-fashioned joint that serves multiple generations on a walk-in basis. Grandfathers bringing in their grandsons for a crew cut. He says that he and his fellow barbers have been closely watching DeWine's press conferences and staying in touch with the Ohio State Cosmetology and Barber Board, which governs the industry. (Carlo's has three locations in Garfield Heights, Independence and Broadview Heights.)

“Especially in Ohio, the state barber board is very strict about sanitation and disinfectant requirements,” he says. This involves the cleaning of tools and working surfaces—even regulating how towels are stored. “Before we shut down, as COVID-19 started to become more apparent in the news, we took extra steps to sanitize chairs between clients, hitting light switches with disinfectant. We posted signs asking clients with flu symptoms to please come back at another time when they were feeling healthy.”

It's a matter of following the state's guidelines, yes, always, but it's all a business can do to juggle compliance with comfort. “We'll adapt to whatever regulations [DeWine] brings out,” Sarsfield says.

In downtown Cleveland, Nick Hilf runs Rockefeller Barber Shop. Before the shutdown began, he says he was clearly explaining the shop's sanitation protocols to each customer—wiping down chairs and washing hands and literally talking through the process as the next customer got ready for a cut.

On the day we talk, Hilf says he'd just gotten another request for some freelance work: six guys all eagerly hoping for a haircut at a downtown office. But no dice. “I had to decline, you know?” he says. “I can't chance losing my license for six haircuts. This is my career.”

During the entire crisis, Hilf has been offered $50, $100 for haircuts on a regular basis. (Sarsfield echoes the point: “There's been an incredible amount of requests to do under-the-table work, but I will say all of us have taken the orders very seriously. As a barber, you really do have a big responsibility to the public health in the area in which you live.”)

click to enlarge Rockefeller Barber Shop - COURTESY OF NICK HILF
  • Courtesy of Nick Hilf
  • Rockefeller Barber Shop
Much of the past eight weeks has been an elaborate guessing game, wondering how DeWine and his task forces will shape public policy going forward. As a licensed industry, regulations are everything. That's clear now more than ever before. “It's going to be a completely different way of cutting hair once we get back to this,” Hilf says.

That seems to be case for all businesses. As DeWine laid out his own vision for what the rest of May will look like, it came complete with asterisks on nearly everything. All transactions will be performed at a remove. There will be layers between customer and professional, layers of plexiglass and unseen information. Part of this story is about getting back to business and getting some hair cut once again. But the other part of this story is about reigniting the patchwork of shops that make our community a community. Before we “get back to normal,” a misnomer in itself, we need to lift the workers of the world out of this springtime rut.

Hilf says that he ran headlong into an early glitch in the unemployment system that would not recognize his work history. Same thing with the spectrum of grants and small business loans: “I filled out anything I was able to,” he says. Nothing.

And that's part of the broader economic reality here; barbers aren't immune. In the industry, you're either a 1099 worker or an employed staffer at a small business (or a big business). That may seem obvious, but the implications in a world hobbled by the coronavirus outbreak are vast.

When DeWine shuttered the Ohio economic in mid-March, he kickstarted a complex churn of unemployment benefits. Quintana says that his employees were able to pick up benefits, but barbers working on a 1099 basis weren't so fortunate. The result on some level has been a sudden uptick in DIY jobs. Try this: Search “How to cut your own hair” on Youtube and feel your eyes widen as you see all the videos that have been posted in recent weeks (and all the ads suddenly appearing at the top of the search results).

“Right now, the barbering industry has boomed on social media,” Santana says. “Everyone wants to be a barber. All over the USA, for sure, there's unlicensed barbers cutting hair in basements in every neighborhood.” He also teaches Allstate Hairstyling and Barber College in Ohio City, and he's quick to underscore how important it is to keep health precautions in mind. Anyone can cut hair, sure, but the whole idea of the practice—the art—is rooted in delicate public safety.

Now, barbers are looking ahead to seeing their shaggy-haired customers once again. These haircut appointments in late May are going to be interesting, perhaps emotional experiences for everyone involved. We're all tuned into sanitation practices, diligently watching every other person we cross for signs of their own commitment to the greater good. Barbers have always known this. Their shops are a safe place, a haven for the sense of community we've been missing and a testament to cleanliness in all acts. The barber shop. As we contemplate these nervous next steps in American society, it's good to have a place to set your trust for a few minutes, to relax and settle in for a cut.

“The barber industry and the cosmetology industry are very anxious to be able to show the community what we've always done — whether it's with lice or ringworm or any other communicable diseases that were available before — to show them that we can actually protect them and show them that we're still a service that they can come out an patronize,” Quintana says.

So, what'll it be?

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