On July 13th, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that he would be re-closing the state's indoor service industry, including hair salons and barbershops across 30 counties, in an effort to curb the alarming spike in COVID-19 cases, with over 130,000 new infections reported over the last 14 days.
For many California residents — particularly small-business owners who invested in the necessary PPE and sanitation equipment required to reopen operations this past month — a second shutdown could be crushing. So, in an effort to provide relief, Newsom offered a small provision in an amended mandate: Beauty salons can remain open for business, so long as the services take place outside.
In a recent press briefing, Newsom explained that this alternative comes from the CDC's recommendation that states encourage citizens to shift their traditionally indoor activities — like dining out at a restaurant, or getting a haircut — to an outdoor establishment. As a matter of fact, the outdoor hair salon model is not a novel concept: Open-air barbershops were also introduced back in 1918 during the flu pandemic, with the thought that increased air flow would mitigate the spread of illness.
The evidence still stands today, according to public-health expert Karl Minges, PhD. "Adapting the salon environment from a closed space to open air will lower the overall risk of infection from, what I would term, medium to low," Dr. Minges explains. "We know this virus is most likely to be spread via particles in the air, so being outdoors will help to dissipate the virus if exhaled by a customer or beautician. However, an outdoor haircut is only a ‘low’ risk activity if everyone adheres to the safety precautions: wearing face masks properly, maintaining social distance until seated, washing hands, and staying home if they feel sick."
"Adapting the salon environment from a closed space to open air will lower the overall risk of infection from medium to low.'"
public-health expert Dr. Karl Minges, PhD
In theory, the outdoor concept may sound simple (like rolling a few salon chairs into a parking lot), but many California salon owners are finding the model fraught with logistical complications and economic obstacles. According to hair colourist Nikki Lee and stylist Riawna Capri — the co-owners of the recently-re-closed Nine Zero One Salon in Los Angeles — moving services outside simply isn't an option.
"We work in West Hollywood and don't even have a proper parking lot," explains Lee. "Even if we had space, I could never take a colour appointment, because I need a shampoo bowl and heat — a connection to the salon's internal plumbing and electricity. Not to mention, we'd have to buy a big tent, a tarp, and probably a million other things, when let's not forget, we've already paid for all of our PPE and extra sanitation equipment to make our indoor salon super safe."
Despite the practical and financial obstacles surrounding a full-service outdoor hair salon, the model can be effectively implemented for simple haircuts. "I definitely think that this option could be a great way to keep barbershops in business," notes Capri. "For barbers, the outdoor service would just look like a dry haircut — the stylist could use scissors or an electric razor — and then just send the client home to take a shower and wash the hair off their neck. If it's bare bones, with no shampoo, colour, blowout, or styling, it's definitely possible to do a haircut outside in the summer."
Beyond barbershops, the outdoor service model has shown to be working in some salons in Los Angeles County, including The Chris McMillan Salon, owned and operated by the eponymous celebrity hairstylist. Following the government mandate to close indoor salon operations, McMillan posted an Instagram gallery showing the outdoor setup of his Beverly Hills salon, which has a courtyard (a luxury not afforded to many salon owners). "This is exciting news," McMillan wrote in the caption, endorsing the temporary outdoor salon alternative. In terms of protocol, he added that his clients should arrive to their appointment with hair pre-shampooed, and of course, masks must be worn at all times and social-distancing rules still apply.
But will the outdoor salon become the future across California and other states in the country? It's quite possible. The ability to move services outdoors may help some small-business salon owners stay afloat and safe during this time — while others might suffer the economic blow of closing with no outdoor alternative in sight. From a health perspective, experts say it's a necessary compromise. "Ultimately, the mandate is a smart move," Dr. Minges says. "It helps California walk the tight balance of keeping the economy going while maintaining necessary COVID-19 prevention efforts."