Inside The Secret World Of Canada’s Underground Pandemic Beauty Salons

Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images.
On an autumn day last year, Amy* walked over to her favourite nail salon in her Toronto neighbourhood. The lights were off, the curtains drawn, the security gate pulled down. It looked completely closed, as it was supposed to be: Toronto was in the middle of its second lockdown
Except that Amy had an appointment. She slid the gate up and knocked on the door. It swung open and a woman grabbed her by the arm and pulled her into the salon. Inside, three other women, wearing face masks and sitting in complete silence and separated by plexiglass, were in various stages of manicures and pedicures. There was no Top 40 playing, no salon chatter. “All you could hear was the whirring of the machine they use to file down nails,” says Amy. “You could hear a pin drop.”
With Toronto in some stage of lockdown since November 2020, provinces like Manitoba, Alberta, and Quebec in and out of various shutdowns these past few months, and non-essential businesses closed, many Canadians are now heading into their sixth month without their usual nail appointments, haircuts, or waxes. Like Amy, they’re fed up, and increasingly, they’re taking matters into their own hands: At least 100 underground barbershops and salons popped up during the pandemic in Toronto and Nova Scotia, CTV News reported in March. Out-of-work barbers and stylists in Toronto and Peel Region are advertising in-home haircuts online while viral videos on TikTok have offered to connect Canadians with beauty services, with lash technicians and hair stylists sharing their availability in the comments. Name a service and you can find it — with some technicians even coming to your home if you’re okay with it. 
It’s tough to argue with how good a fresh cut and colour or shellac mani (remember those?) can make you feel, and most of us have played fast and loose with COVID guidelines at some point or another. But there are some complicated ethics around flouting the rules meant to keep the public safe, chiefly because the people getting these services have the choice and privilege to decide whether or not they want a pedicure or to get their roots touched up. The people performing these services often don’t.

We’ve been closed for almost a year, and if people don't know how to get that money and don’t know what they're going to do for their next meal, of course they're going to go underground.

Annette Palumbo, director of the Beauty United Council of Ontario
“When you hear people that get their car repossessed, people that don't have a roof over their head, people that can't afford their groceries, people that are losing their businesses, it has gotten to the point of beyond,” says Annette Palumbo, director of industry advocacy group The Beauty United Council of Ontario. While the council doesn’t condone these underground operations, Palumbo says she understands why people resort to them. “We’ve been closed for almost a year, and if people don't know how to get that money and don’t know what they're going to do for their next meal, of course they're going to go underground.”
It’s true that Canada's beauty industry has been hit hard by COVID. Over the past year, salons and nail salons in Ontario hot spots have been closed for over 200 days, with some businesses reporting as high as a 90% drop in income and 60% of people in the industry saying their career would be affected by COVID moving forward. A predominant number of those affected by these closures are women, who make up 80% of the hairstylist industry and 81% of the beauty industry. Many of these service providers would prefer to be home and following guidelines (no matter how arbitrary they may appear to be; more on that below), but instead, with limited financial support from the government, some have to work out of sheer necessity — and sometimes desperation, which creates an inherent power imbalance between customers and service providers.
“We still have to do what we have to do. Money has to be made,” says Victoria*, a GTA-based certified brow expert and lash artist, who worked at Sephora but opened her own at-home studio last October when she was out of work. She initially started seeing only family and friends, but eventually allowed other clients into her studio — one at a time — via word of mouth. While she was fearful of potential fines (which can range, in Toronto for example, from $750 (approximately £437) to $100,000 (approximately £58,350), including up to one year in jail), she needed to make a living. “I thought I was doing a bad thing at first,” Victoria says. “But I saw that there are other people in my predicament...This is my life, it's my income, it's how I feed my family and provide for myself.”
Complicating the matter is the fact that there’s not much statistical proof that salons should even be closed right now. In provinces like Alberta and Ontario, long-term care facilities, factories, and warehouses have been identified as major sources of outbreaks (which is why many have called for the implementation of paid sick days as a means to quell the spread). Data around COVID outbreaks in salons and spas is difficult to track, mostly because it can be hard to pinpoint the exact source of an infection, but there’s very little evidence to back up any claims that they’re a source for spread.
Even before salons were locked down for the second and third times, there were incredibly strict preventative protocol. This included using plexiglass dividers, extensive sanitation measures, and double masking as well as donning face shields. “I have COVID precautions happening; everybody wears a mask and uses hand sanitiser, and I give myself enough time between every client,” says Victoria.
For some, like Amy, those risk-mitigation practices are enough to soothe any anxieties about contracting the virus. “I felt totally safe this whole time, which is one of the reasons why I've been doing it,” she says. She sees rituals like getting a manicure, wearing lashes, and having her hair blown out as a battle armour of sorts that she — and many other people — have relied upon to make themselves feel good, confident, and even productive. “To a lot of people, it's more than just a little beauty treatment. This is part of their image, this is part of who they are," says Amy. "And if you can give someone that comfort back in a small way, or they can take it back on their own, then why not?”

Data around COVID outbreaks in salons and spas is difficult to track, mostly because it can be hard to pinpoint the exact source of an infection, but there’s very little evidence to back up any claims that they’re a source for spread. 

In a statement to Refinery29, a spokesperson for Health Canada and The Public Health Agency of Canada advised Canadians to follow public-health measures in the regions they live, and weigh the potential risk of an activity for spread. With COVID numbers still high in parts of the country (Manitoba and Alberta recently reported that they’d reached new peaks in intensive-care admissions) and COVID-19 variants in play, there’s an inherent risk in doing anything that’s not within the four walls of your home.
Plus, if customers are seeing multiple beauty providers — bopping from their stylist, to their colourist, to their manicurist, and then topping it off a brow shaping — they not only open themselves, but all these respective technicians and their other customers, as well as anyone else they may see, to potential spread.
With Ontario’s lockdown just extended until at least June 2, there’s still no word from the Ford government on when personal-care services will reopen. Palumbo says that she’s working with the government to try to find ways for these businesses to open their doors safely and within the guidelines as soon as possible. The council has partnered with a company that provides a quality-assurance program for dental hygienists to launch a similar program for the beauty industry, which will help salons and other beauty businesses ensure their businesses meet public health standards so they can reopen — and stay open. 
Meanwhile, my eyebrows are going into month five with absolutely no grooming. While I won’t personally be going underground, you better believe I’ll be booking first thing come June 3.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy. This story was originally published on Refinery29 Canada.

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