“Your stylist is ready for you now.”
You hang up the phone and step out of your car, sliding on your face mask. An assistant stands guard just inside the hair salon, suited up in full PPE and holding a non-contact thermometer. As she comes outside to take your temperature, she runs through the required COVID-19 screening questionnaire and confirms you’ve prepaid for your appointment, as is now standard with touchless pay protocols. Satisfied, she lets you through the door, directing you first to the hand-sanitizing station before bringing you straight to a styling chair.
The salons in 2021 are eerily quiet—the steady hum of blow dryers absent amidst ongoing debates over their risk in spreading germs. Gone are the waiting areas, the receptionists, the free drinks, and the magazines fanned out on every surface. Nobody is within ten feet of you except your stylist, who is swaddled in a mask, face shield, plastic apron, and gloves.
Music still pumps through speakers, but without the idle chatter of a full, bustling salon (all of which are still operating at 50 percent capacity), the experience feels somewhat dulled. And yet, to you, this stilted experience is already the new norm—this is the hair salon of the foreseeable future.
If this all sounds a little melodramatic, like some bad Black Mirror fanfiction—you’d be correct. It is dramatic. And yet, it’s exactly what’s already happening across the country today as hair salons begin to nervously re-open without a COVID-19 vaccine—or even clear, widespread protocols—in sight.
In states where restrictions are gradually being lifted, salons are now implementing new guidelines that range from the basic (e.g., masks, sanitizing, social distancing), to the extra cautious (no large personal items, no accompanied guests or kids, no blow-drying, no hair-washing)—all protocols that reflect those currently being enforced around the world.
In Germany, new salon regulations restrict face-to-face interactions—discussions between stylists and clients must take place in the mirror, and front-facing lash and eyebrow tints are temporarily banned. In London, some salons are prohibiting jewelry and requiring cell phones be placed in plastic bags upon arrival, while other salons in Italy and Paris are limiting appointments to one client at a time, or booking appointments starting at 5 a.m. to offset capacity restrictions. In the U.S., some salons are even setting 30-minute timers per appointment to minimize exposure risks.
And wherever you fall on the “Well, I think…” spectrum, the reality is the same: “Nobody knows enough right now to know which protocols are potentially overkill and which aren’t,” says Jaimie Meyer, MD, an infectious disease doctor and assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine. “As long as there’s a theoretical risk for COVID, the general concept in public health is better safe than sorry.” Does that mean in six months or a year, salons will still be under the same intense restrictions as they are today? No, not necessarily. But also…yeah, maybe.
“Salons are specifically tricky because they require close contact for an extended period of time in an indoor space—all things we’re trying to avoid when minimizing risk,” says Irfan N. Hafiz, an infectious disease doctor at Northwestern Medicine. And although he acknowledges that "guidance on salons will likely change” in the coming months (whether for better or worse is yet to be seen), “these concerns inherent to salons aren’t going to go away.” Unless, of course, stylists somehow invent a rapid, open-air, contact-less hair service…from six feet away.
Although it’s nice to imagine a scenario in which you head back to the salon this summer or fall, mask-free and ready to hang like it’s 2019, it frankly won’t be the reality. “The idea is you’re responding to data on a 14-day or monthly basis,” says Dr. Meyer. “As you relax certain restrictions, you watch to see if cases decline—in which case you can relax even more—or to see if there’s a huge uptick in cases, in which case you pull back again.” But until we know more about, well, everything, experts agree salons won’t resemble anything close to “normal” for a very long time.
And while a future of needing to pay ahead of your appointment, or wear a mask, or skip the post-cut blow-dry might seem like a major inconvenience to you and seemingly you alone, it’s important to think of how these restrictions will also affect the stylists who are exposing themselves every day for your hair. Because as much as you’ll miss the normalcy of the old salon experience, so will they—especially when these new protocols will directly impact their financial stability, the longevity of their careers, and even their day-to-day sanity.
While you chill in your car waiting for your appointment, your stylist is frantically disinfecting every surface from her previous client—alone. Her assistant is gone, laid off months ago due to pay cuts and space limitations. Combs, tools, and scissors are swiftly soaked and scrubbed in hospital-grade disinfectant, while chairs, bottles, door handles, sinks, that ledge someone briefly rested their phone on, are all wiped down with industrial sanitizer. A new apron and gloves are donned, fresh tools are replaced.
By the time you walk through the salon, your stylist has only just finished her new side gig as both an assistant and a cleaner. She’s tired. Her plastic face shield digs into her head, and her safety mask leaves her sweating and mildly anxious all day. She needs to work longer hours each week to make up for her reduced client capacity, and when she’s not working, she’s also worrying about those hours being cut.
Or worrying about her salon closing. Or worrying about her own health, or the health of her clients, or about the assistants and stylists who are jobless and may stay jobless for months or years. But she’s also thankful to be back at work in any capacity, when so many salons temporarily closed in 2020 and never re-opened again.
Although data doesn’t yet exist on how COVID-19 has affected hair salons around the country—and likely won’t for years to come—stylists say the future of their industry is bleak. “It’s going to be really telling in the next year what salons can survive this,” says Sally Hershberger, celeb hairstylist and founder of Sally Hershberger salons. “At the end of the day, with all of these restrictions, your business is going to be cut by 50 percent for who knows how long.”
And even though, sure, regulations might start to ease in the coming months, the “damage” to these businesses will have already been done: "I think a huge number of salons just won’t be able to recover,” says Hershberger.
For the salons who do make it through, their reduced capacity and added overhead costs of PPE, cleaning supplies, and renovations could likely mean higher prices and longer wait times for you (think months-long waiting lists, reduced services, and steeper fees for cuts and colors). “I think even next year, the salon experience won’t necessarily look like anything what we’re used to,” says Jacob Khan, hairstylist and founder of Jacob K Hair in Atlanta, GA.
In 2021, the buzzy energy of whirring tools, conspiratorial gossip, and selfie-taking giddiness will be stilled, and the communal vibes of beauty parlors past, will, for the time being, be gone. But, as with all of the rapid changes in the post-pandemic world, you’ll already be used to this new norm by the time it happens. You will sit in your disposable paper gown, muffled-chatting with your stylist, in a sterile salon surrounded by no one, and you will almost forget how things used to be.
Of course, this is all still theoretical (and also the very least distressing side effect of this deadly virus). Not one of the seven infectious disease doctors, professors, hairstylists, or public health officials* who helped me paint this speculative picture claimed to see the future (sadly), and as we all know by now, the facts of this pandemic are rapidly changing every day.
Perhaps, by 2021, we’ll all have been proven wrong—in fact, I hope we are. But until then, it’s worth preparing for the possibility that the salon experience you’re holding out for may not be coming back. “The reality is that our future 'normal' is never going to be our past 'normal,'" says Dr. Irfan. “We’re all going to have to re-think our new world.” And, yeah, that also includes your hair.
*Sources (i.e., not fortune tellers) for this speculative, yet fact-based future include seven people currently living through it all: Sonny S. Patel, a public health executive at Harvard University; Jaimie Meyer, MD, an infectious disease doctor and assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine; Irfan N. Hafiz, an infectious disease doctor at Northwestern Medicine; Joseph G. Allen, assistant professor at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health; Jacob Khan, Goldwell ambassador, hairstylist and owner of Jacob K Hair in Atlanta, GA; Sally Hershberger, celeb hairstylist and founder of Sally Hershberger salons; and Meri Kate O’Connor, hairstylist and colorist in Santa Monica, CA
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