Why Can’t Hair Salons Just Open?

Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images.
UPDATE: On April 1, the Ford government announced that all 34 health regions in Ontario will enter a four-week province-wide shutdown starting on April 3. Similar to the modified grey zone regions like Toronto and Peel have been in since March, the new "shutdown" tier allows essential retailers to operate at 50% capacity and non-essential at 25%. All indoor dining and personal care services — like spas and hair dressers — are closed.
The announcement comes days after personal care services in Toronto and Peel region, including hair and nail salons, were told they'd be allowed to open at limited capacity as of April 12, alongside barber shops, and body art establishments (ie: tattoo parlours).
Original story, published on March 25, 2021, follows
Last spring, before COVID was officially declared a pandemic, June Croken knew that something was up. The Toronto-based hairstylist — and other stylists she knew — were unusually slow for a time of year when all people want are fresh spring haircuts. “I didn't want to take it personally,” Croken says, “I was wondering: Have I changed? Am I slipping a bit? But for some strange reason, everything was slowing down. And then we just went into full lockdown."
A full year later, salons in Toronto and Peel region remain closed (after briefly opening over the summer), even as the province announced last week that restaurant patios in these same lockdown "grey zone" areas can re-open. That's in addition to earlier loosening of rules that allow retailers to operate at 25% capacity. With salons and spas now open in most of the country, personal care businesses in the affected regions are wondering why they’ve been left behind in reopening — and, some say, are being unfairly targeted.
“It continues to be very surprising to us,” says Debbie Dunseath, president of the Ontario Professional Hairstylist Association (OPHA), of the continued closure of personal care services (which includes spas, salons, and gyms) in some parts of Ontario. “The only thing [the government] can tell us is it’s because of the close contact that we have with clients. But the contact with massage therapy or dental hygienists is far closer than what we do. None of it makes sense.”

The salon industry is being decimated.

Debbie Dunseath, president of the Ontario Professional Hairstylist Association
She says most salons are taking in half of what they used to; many are selling product and at-home colour kits to stay afloat. (Croken estimates her income has dropped by 90%.) Stylists can apply for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit, but it’s far from enough to cover both living expenses and business costs like renting a chair or a studio. And things may get worse: According to a May 2020 survey by Salon Magazine, 60% of people in the salon industry said their career would be affected by COVID-19 moving forward, with 11% saying they were considering a career change. “The industry is being decimated,” says Dunseath. 
Women are taking the brunt. It’s worth noting that we make up at least 80% of the hairstylist industry and 85% of the beauty industry, including estheticians. These are among the hardest-hit fields by the pandemic (retail, healthcare, and service are also greatly affected), and we’ve seen incredible job losses, and women leaving the workforce at alarming rates
Initially, these continued closures seemed necessary, except that there’s not that much actual statistical proof to keep them shut. Dr. Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist from the University of Toronto, says that data around COVID outbreaks in salons and spas is hard to track, as it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact source of an infection. In July 2020, the federal government released a risk assessment document which categorizes hair salons and barber shops as “medium risk,” alongside outdoor patios and restaurants, and medical services like dentists. As of March 13, Statistics Canada reported that the personal care industry (which includes hair and nail salons), has been responsible for 47 outbreaks and 401 cases across the country since the start of the pandemic, the lowest rate among similar businesses. For reference, food and retail stores have accounted for 634 outbreaks and 2,161 cases, per the report.
“The risks associated with any of those sorts of businesses really relate to the fact that they're indoors and indoors for long periods of time,” says Tuite. (The virus travels faster and lives longer indoors, especially in areas with less ventilation and air flow.) But, she emphasizes, it’s dependent on the set-up of the space. “If you're in a salon or are getting your nails done where you have good ventilation, or you're able to have the windows open, and everyone's wearing three-layer masks or ideally medical masks, the risk would actually be lower than, for example, in a restaurant where people are taking off their mask to eat.” While being outdoors is always the safest option, she adds, “in terms of indoor activities [salons are] probably lower risk than other activities that are currently permitted.” Worse, many people are now turning to underground haircuts or driving to other open regions for a trim, which could result in more spread.
Which is exactly why stylists are so perplexed. 
Both Dunseath and Annette Palumbo, the director of industry advocacy group the Beauty United Council of Ontario, say that it comes down to the government undervaluing the industry. In Ontario, of the 23 compulsory trades (professions with licensed curriculum governed by the government, which includes professions like chefs and electricians), hairdressers are the only trade currently not working in grey zones. “The problem here is that [the government] thinks of us as high school dropouts, without even recognizing that we run professional businesses with high protocols,” Palumbo says. Refinery29 has reached out to the government of Ontario, the Minister of Health, and the City of Toronto for comment. 

We’ve seen that we're able to keep certain businesses or essential services open. Schools are the extreme example of that... Similarly, you should be able to keep salons open with the appropriate mitigation measures in place.”

Dr. Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist from the University of Toronto
In fact, as Croken, who works out of a one-chair space, points out, hairstylists — who followed standardized sanitation and cleanliness training even before COVID — are probably among the most well-equipped to operate safely during a pandemic. Prepping to reopen her salon after the first shutdown, Croken even implemented extra safety measures, including wearing both a face shield and medical grade mask, as well as gloves, alongside the implemented regulations like social distancing, regular chair and station sanitization, and temperature checks.
We’ve seen these same sorts of checks and balances implemented in other salons across the country. In Montreal, where salons are open (with a 9:30 p.m. curfew), stylists like InHAIRitance Curl Spa’s Michal Harewood says additional safety measures like installing glass between chairs and staggering client scheduling has allowed the salon to work effectively — and safely — at around 50% capacity. Other provinces like Saskatchewan have further guidelines including the removal of unnecessary communal items (like magazines, drinks etc.) in waiting areas.
While the Ontario government has said it will reassess re-opening of spas and salons in the next few weeks, for those in the industry — and their clients — the day can’t come any sooner. And that’s not *just* because a majority of us are at the "ponytail is my only hairstyle" stage of lockdown. Going to the salon is a form of self-care. "We’re able to instill some self-respect and feelings of mental wellness," says Dunseath.
“It’s really about priority,” Tuite says of re-opening. “We’ve seen that we're able to keep certain businesses or essential services open. Schools are the extreme example of that, where you have large numbers of people in crowded spaces for long periods of time, and there are a lot of mitigation measures in place. Similarly, you should be able to keep salons open with the appropriate mitigation measures in place.”
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.

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