Coronavirus Will Change The Nail Industry As We Know It
In less than a week, salons across the country were forced to close their doors — leaving workers unemployed and scrambling to make ends meet.
In Ohio and Minnesota, the mandate came down on Wednesday, March 18: Nail salons and other businesses that offer “non-essential personal services” were ordered to temporarily close up shop to slow the transmission of COVID-19. The order followed on the heels of California's Bay Area, which had already begun practicing shelter in place. By Friday, March 20, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Alaska, and Los Angeles County (the last of which accounts for five percent of the country's nail salons) had all required spas and salons to close. Saturday, Michigan followed suit, while in the UK, the government is considering forcing the closure of all non-essential shops.
As quickly as the coronavirus spreads, so will the closures of thousands of beauty salons (the number estimated at over 40,000 in the UK) bringing an entire industry to its knees. It’s something that’s caught the estimated 126,300 to 212,519 certified nail salon workers in the U.S. (which 2018 California and New York state board data suggests only reflects 30-47% of the workforce) completely off guard. For an industry that is almost fully comprised of women (81%) and immigrant workers (79%), one third of which are heads of households and self-employed, the sudden loss of work is devastating. But behind the scenes, the effects of the pandemic began to show a month earlier.
“We first felt the impact of the virus through our supply chain,” says Kristin Gyimah, a nail tech and owner of Dime Nails LA. “Our large Chinese and Korean-owned suppliers were not getting shipments of their supplies from China and supplies were running low. Everyone was scrambling to get their barbicide, gloves, masks, nail files — everything they could.” Just a few days later, Gyimah saw a drastic drop in business. “As a result, we started telling the nail artists that this is going to hit us and by March 3, we started seeing the books drop off. Phones were completely quiet and we were just kind of left hoping and waiting to see what would happen.”
Meanwhile, in another mom-and-pop salon in Queens, New York, 53 year-old manicurist Morshada Begam began to see a significant slump in business as well. “Three weeks ago, it started to get really slow,” she told Refinery29 on Friday. “We were just sitting with no customers. People were scared to come in.” Begam, who immigrated to New York City from Bangladesh in 1998, decided then to give up her part-time night shifts — not because she was losing the $75 (approximately £62.72) or so in daily wages and tips, but because she was concerned about the safety of her family. “I have my mum home, who is 83 years old, and I take care of her. I take the subway and the bus to go to work. She’s had diabetes and asthma and I didn't want to make her sick," she says.
Giving up her shifts at the salon wasn’t easy — in order to keep her family afloat, Begam now relies solely on the monthly stipend she earns as a primary caregiver for her mother. Because she’s technically paid for her day job, she is ineligible for unemployment benefits and has been forced to use credit to get by. “I'm worried,” Begam says. “The work I do with my mum is not enough [to support us]. I'm not so young, so it’s not easy for me to find a job. I’m worried about how I'm going to meet expenses. I have to use my credit card now and it's going to be very hard for me to pay for everything back. I’m worried, but I have no choice. My mum is my first priority.”
By March 8, as the virus’s epicentre had moved from China to Iran and Italy (where 60 million residents were placed on lockdown), bigger players in the nail industry started weighing the costs and benefits of providing such an intimate service. MiniLuxe, which operates salons in four states, has built its reputation as the place to get an ultra-sanitary mani/pedi — thanks to a heightened hygiene protocol enhanced by in-house sterilisation rooms. If you could get a worry-free manicure anywhere, it would be at one of its 24 locations.
But as the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on March 11, and as a few of MiniLuxe’s employees and customers began to voice discomfort about coming into the studios, the company’s top brass met to put its own plan into place. “We put plans A, B, and C together, with the worst case scenario being if someone came into our studios after having come into contact with coronavirus, then we would shut it down and get it cleaned,” says Donna Charloff, services director for the brand. “There was no plan to close — that was never on our radar.”
But just a few days later, the writing was on the wall: MiniLuxe announced on Monday, March 16, that it would temporarily shut all of its doors the following morning — ahead of state-issued mandates. By the end of the week, some 550 nail designers and editors were furloughed. “It was just an agonising decision, honestly. Our founder and team were trying to figure out anything to do other than close and we knew it had to happen,” Charloff says. “As safe as we are, as hygienic as we are, our employees and clients may still have been at risk, which is why we closed. It was the right thing to do. There's just no way to do it safely given the guidelines that everyone's been given.”
In London, beauty app Treatwell announced the closure of their central London salons until April 14th. Their websites reads: "The government advises everyone to stay home as much as possible to slow the spread of the virus - and we do too. Got an appointment booked while we're closed? Don't worry, we'll refund any pre-paid appointments. Thank you for your understanding during this time and we look forward to welcoming you back to our partner venues when it is safe to do so."
At Dime Nails LA, Gyiman was grappling with the same impossible decision: As the virus spread, she became more and more concerned about the safety of her clients and employees, as well as the nail techs' livelihoods should she choose to shutter. (As a group, they had selected to work on a commission basis in January, when California’s controversial AB5, a bill intended to reclassify gig workers as employees, was enacted.) By the second week of March, her business was serving about half of the clients it might otherwise. New customers were scarce. Still, regular clients continued to come in. “I was able to keep all the girls on staff and I know that hasn’t been the situation for a lot of independent, suite-run technicians, or hourly technicians. My staff was still able to pull in a decent wage,” Gyiman says.
In fact, as leaked federal documents suggested the pandemic could last 18 months or longer, Gyiman saw a boom in business as other salons began to close their doors. “People weren’t trying to get unicorn chrome nails,” she says. "It was more a matter of people worried about in-growns they would get after a month of no pedicures, or needing to get acrylics, extensions, or gels removed.”
At first, Gyiman limited the number of people in the salon to 10 at a time, but it was beginning to become clear that it wouldn't be enough to protect her employees and customers. “There’s no social distancing with nails,” she says.
When opening her shop on Monday and Tuesday of last week, she noticed people on the street giving her the side eye. “It was starting to get weird with clients," she says. "People were scared. Everyone was wearing masks and gloves to protect themselves.” Followers on Instagram also urged her to close. “I was torn. I know a lot of my techs depend solely on this income to feed their families. A lot of them are single mothers who have kids or have grandparents or parents that they take care of and it was hard because our books were full and we could easily have stayed open Thursday so they could make a little more cash,” she says. Finally, despite the surge in business, Gyiman decided to close the shop just ahead of L.A.’s mandate. The following day, 23 calls for appointments went to voicemail.
Gyiman cut her employees checks on Thursday, just as they were furloughed. Miniluxe, which provides its nail designers and editors with paid time off, also immediately issued checks (including PTO balances) as well as information on how to apply for unemployment benefits.
Beyond The Salon
As rapidly as the infrastructure of nail salons collapsed, so did the business of styling nails for advertising campaigns, editorial shoots, and red carpet events. Mazz Hanna, CEO of Nailing Hollywood, a boutique agency that solely represents nail stylists, started to see a sharp decline in business after March 9. “Shoot after shoot was getting deleted off of our calendar. It was crazy. By 13th March, we literally had no jobs on the calendar at all. Not now and not for the future. Nothing.” Even more distressing, the cancellations came during the agency's busiest time of the year “March through May is when companies are starting to get their fall fashion content together," Hanna says. "Last year at the end of March, we had shoots nearly every single day.”
Queenie Nguyen is one Nailing Hollywood artist who works with stars like Halsey and Saoirse Ronan. The evaporation of her on-set and red carpet work dovetailed with a completed drop in private client services. “Everything hit hard beginning last Sunday [15th March],” she says. “But even the week before that, a lot of clients were asking to reschedule, which I understand. As of this week, everything has been completely canceled.” Nguyen is working with the Nailing Hollywood team on a pivot: reaching out to companies to offer sponsored content for social media. “Obviously, this is a time where content is something people are really engaging with — even people who normally don't do it,” her agent, Hanna, says.
“People think I have a glamorous life. But they don't really understand that we're also living paycheck-to-paycheck, too.”
Queenie Nguyen, celebrity Nail Artist
The sudden erasure of Nguyen’s income has sent her in a spiral of different emotions. “I went from confused to sad to denial and back to sad — it’s like the stages of grief," she says. "But now I'm optimistic. Instead of sitting here thinking the world's going to end, I'm thinking ‘Okay what can I do for myself and how can I help other people?' For now, staying home is helping other people.” She has received a couple of requests for house calls, which could throw a little cash in her pocket, but the nail artist knows it isn’t worth the risk of possible spread or exposure — especially when nurses and doctors are on the front lines. As of yesterday, Nguyen starting doing delivery work through Postmates to make ends meet and is attempting to file for unemployment, although she says the site crashed every time she’s tried to get an application going.
“People think I have a glamorous life,” Nguyen says in reference to her high-profile work. “But they don't really understand that we're also living paycheck-to-paycheck, too.”
How To Help
The nail industry’s rapid collapse is unprecedented. With hundreds of thousands of manicurists and pedicurists facing furlough and layoffs (some with no benefits or eligibility for unemployment), there’s never been a more crucial time to support your local salon or nail pro.
Some independent nail shop owners are thinking creatively to give employees a cushion in the upcoming weeks. Cute Nail Studio in Austin is paying out two weeks sick leave, earmarking all profits from online sales through April 20 (which includes accessories, clothing, jewellery and nail products) for employees, as well as giving a small cash bonus to its team. Owner Jason Darling has also set up a GoFundMe page to provide his 22 employees with financial relief, in addition to promoting employee-made press-ons through the salon's Instagram page.
For its part, MiniLuxe just launched its MiniLuxe Resiliency Fund, which will pool half of all nail polish sales and a portion of gift certificate sales in order to support the brand’s furloughed employees. “We've had an outpouring of love and support already from some of our clients asking how they can support our nail designers,” notes Carolyn Monaghan, operations project manager at the company. To that end, the brand will help facilitate Venmo transactions so customers can also donate directly to the nail artists they patron most.
Dime Nails LA’s Gyimah is also providing clients with her nail techs' individual Venmo accounts upon request. It’s a transparent way of making sure funds are appropriated properly, particularly as consumers question how salons are leveraging community support.
But that's not to say that the salons themselves won’t need help. As Gyimah notes, “We have no revenue right now so, depending on the situation, business owners are going to be up against a ton of backlogged electricity, gas, rent bills, and whatever else is coming.” She notes that gift cards can help but, more than anything, she wants her clients to shop responsibly in the face of disaster capitalism. “I'm very conscious of the fact that people are losing their jobs left and right and we don’t know how long this thing will last,” she says. “Dear, God, don’t buy a $50 gift card if that means you can't get groceries in two weeks.”
For those who are also financially impacted by COVID-19, or who are uncertain of their own job security in the coming weeks and months, there are other ways to support your local salon without purchasing products or gift cards. To influence change on a federal level, you can sign this petition. It calls for the expansion of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which would make all impacted workers (including contract workers who can't work off site) eligible for aid. If you live in a state in which citizens are pushing for an expansion of unemployment benefits for freelance and gig workers, you can help advocate on behalf of your nail tech. “We desperately need help from our local and federal government to take care of our own,” notes Darling. Staying in touch via Instagram and helping to build the brand’s connection with your community is also valuable, Gyimah notes. Yes, likes, comments, and shares can actually make a difference.
While many corner nail salons may not have the resources to re-open after the pandemic, the truth is, no one knows what the future holds. As of March 24, the World Health Organization has warned that the U.S. could become the new coronavirus epicentre. Still, MiniLuxe’s Charloff is hopeful that the industry will rebound, thanks in large part to the countless nail pros who make up the heartbeat behind it. “A lot of these technicians are going to be really resilient and figure out a way because they're such hard workers,” she says. “It's in their core to hustle.”