One of my coping mechanisms for navigating the world is to always have manicured nails. It is a privilege to be able to afford to get them done by someone else on a regular basis. As I’ve been watching the news over the past few weeks as COVID-19 spreads around the world, I have nervously chipped away the gel polish on all my nails. Beauty salons, like many other brick-and-mortar businesses, will be operating on life support as New York, California, and, likely the rest of the country, shuts down to reduce the number of sick people falling ill to COVID-19.
The problem here isn’t that I would like a new manicure, but that I am (as per the CDC suggestions) self-isolating inside, driving money away from businesses that run on nearly nonexistent margins. There is no safety net or support system for workers like nail artists, hair stylists, and facialists, who may be risking their health and those of their families to be able to bring home money from low-paying jobs that typically provide no health insurance. In Nails Inc.’s 2012 Annual Survey, only 5% of technicians had health insurance provided by their salons — technicians who do have health insurance are typically covered through their spouses, if at all. As of Friday, March 20, in New York, barbershops, hair salons, nail salons, and tattoo parlors were ordered to close for business starting Saturday, March 21, not knowing when they’ll be able to reopen. Under California’s “stay-at-home” order hair and nail salons are considered nonessential. Other states, including Ohio and Minnesota, have announced closures as well.
It’s a difficult decision, but it will save lives. Keeping salons open right now risks everyone’s health. Teen Vogue spoke to Amy Greer, PhD, research chair in Population Disease Modeling at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and asked the question floating around right now: Can you still go to the salon if you’re in a location where those businesses have not been forced to close?
“It is not safe to go to a salon right now. But it has nothing to do with the physical act of getting a manicure itself. Right now, we’re at a critical window for trying to slow down the spread of COVID-19. If we wait to act, intense disease spread will continue to occur, and this rapid increase in diagnosed cases will swamp our health care systems (as we have seen in places like Italy). What this means is that there will not be enough ICU beds or ventilators to treat the sickest patients,” says Greer. “While I do personally appreciate a fresh manicure, it is not a life-sustaining, essential service, and as a result, it is not safe to get a manicure because unnecessary community contact puts you at risk, puts salon workers at risk, and puts the broader community at risk by ignoring the message being communicated by public health experts, which is to stay home and only engage in essential activities.”
What if everyone in the salon is wearing a mask, including yourself?
Allure spoke with Yvonne Maldonado, an infectious disease physician, at Stanford Health Care, and the answer is still no. Masks can provide a basic barrier, but they're not meant to be used for a long time. “They’re not really helpful after about five minutes since we inhale and exhale humid air, which dampens the mask so it loses its effectiveness,” says Dr. Maldonado. “If something lands on the mask when it’s moist, it will get absorbed.” The typical nail treatment requires close contact for about half an hour, ignoring the six-foot distance currently suggested by the CDC. What’s more, the surgical masks that nail technicians and facialists are typically encouraged to wear during appointments are not the N95 kind that are a little more useful, and also currently in short supply.
Nail technician Noel Tayler is in Chattanooga and has stopped taking clients for now. “People come in nauseous, with foot fungus, flu, colds, infections all the time. Nail techs fight containment without pandemics,” says Tayler. “The masks most salons use are not viral grade. For me and a lot of other workers, there’s not a lot of preparation I can realistically do. Nails tend to be 1099 contract work, and [it] doesn’t come with health insurance.”
New York hairstylist Topher Gross is in a similar boat. For his largely queer clientele with autoimmune diseases, the risk of infection is catastrophic. Gross says: “My income for the next few months is decimated. People began canceling appointments last week, and then the books dried up. I was planning on opening up a salon in Amsterdam, last time we spoke [note: at my last appointment]. That plan has now been pushed back two years. The majority of my clients are queer people, and a significant portion of those clients are also immunocompromised. It’s dangerous. Today I spent two hours trying to apply for unemployment, but the system crashed before I could finish my application. The website can’t sustain the traffic of everyone applying at once.”
Some places are still open, and those workers are the most vulnerable.
Teen Vogue reached out to salons across the country, and all of them are taking different approaches to the situation as it unfolds. Chillhouse is closed for now, and 30% of gift cards purchased will go directly to a pool to help support its retail team until it reopens. Sundays, a nail salon with three New York City locations, decided to close through the end of March before the official closure order. Rescue Spa shut down spa services until March 27. Sharing the news on Instagram, it stated: “The recommendations from our government agencies related to COVID-19 are rapidly evolving, and based on the latest information available, we have decided it is best to suspend our spa services in NYC. These decisions are not made lightly, but we believe this is in the best interest of both our clients and our exceptional service providers, whom we are committed to taking care of during this difficult time.“
While New York salons and spas are shutting down temporarily, the reality is that there are a lot more salons in the country, and many of them are not doing the same, if they haven’t been forced to. Before the shutdown order in New York, Teen Vogue spoke with Edys, a nail salon worker in the Bronx, over the phone. She told Teen Vogue at the time it was business as usual, and added: “The owner hasn’t spoken to any of us about closing and hasn’t taken any precautions either. We have no protection, we aren’t given masks or gloves, and they aren’t wiping down the counters. We have to bring our own gloves, masks, and rubbing alcohol. And yes, I can make the personal decision to not work, but I have bills to pay, rent to pay. I don’t know what to do when the choices are needing to work and being protected.”
In the New York Nail Salon Workers Association February Report, the Nail Salon Workers union discovered that 86% of the workers they surveyed said they are not receiving paid sick days from their employers. More than half of the workers said they are paid a flat daily rate for the days they come in, and the vast majority of employers are out of compliance with the legal obligation to pay at least minimum wage (they have to make up the difference if the employee doesn’t earn enough in tips). The average hourly tip is $3.33 — and that was before a pandemic happened and traffic drastically decreased. The reality is that salon workers rely on tips to make up for subminimum wages, and there is often no safety net for them. They are now, and have been, in a time of crisis management.
There are several ways to help, even if it means you don’t get a new manicure or a haircut for now.
“Some of my clients have reached out to send money towards future appointments, and that is so generous and helpful for me right now,” said hairstylist Topher Gross. It’s a move being echoed across the country. Writer Anne Helen Petersen and her mother have done the same. “I really wanted to get my hair cut, but looking at the chart of workers who face the highest COVID-19 risk underlined it was the right decision for me to cancel and pay my stylist as if I didn’t. My mom is just sending a check to her hairdresser. I paid mine over the phone – it's so easy.”
You can also donate to the One Fair Wage Emergency Fund, which directly supports a variety of tipped workers right now. Besides stylists and manicurists, it supports restaurant workers, delivery drivers, and more. There is a visual map of global support listing fundraisers and local mutual aid networks that is constantly being updated at the moment too.
But the biggest long-term move we can make right now together? Advocate for better systems of support for all workers. “If you believe a salon is violating the rights of employees, contact the New York State Task Force hotline at 888-469-7635,” says the New York Healthy Nail Salon Coalition (NYHNSC). You can also support the right for beauty workers to organize, no matter where you are. The NYHNSC has started a Nail Salon Workers Resilience Fund that will be distributed directly to workers. NYHNSC continued: “Clients are staying home, salons are closing, and many workers do not have access to adequate health care, paid sick leave, or the social safety net due to immigration status. For the low-wage immigrant women who make up this workforce — who deal with widespread wage theft, a lack of health protections and job security, and live not only paycheck to paycheck but day to day — the coronavirus is exacerbating the injustices they have long experienced.”
This fund will directly support nail salon workers to meet their needs, and the needs of their families during this time. “We know that we may be isolated, but we are still united,” stated a representative of the Nail Salon Workers Resilience Fund. The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative is accepting donations. There are state-by-state pledges and calls for more sick days for workers and emergency funds to be disbursed to workers of all kinds. Now is the time to get involved.
While we all deal with COVID-19, it will not be business as usual. Beauty is on hold — even LVMH is switching from perfume making to hand sanitizer for now. But in times of crisis, there is also community and an opportunity to learn and help each other. You might not get a manicure right now, but you can plan for one in the future, and you can have a conversation with your manicurist or stylist about what you can do for each other in the meantime. It’s a time to learn new ways to be with each other and take care of ourselves. Maybe this is the best time to learn how to take off your own gel polish, actually. As someone who has tried it myself, the situation makes me grateful to be able to pay someone else to do it for me when this is all over. This is a crucial time to help minimize the damage we will see playing out in the coming weeks and months. No manicure is worth someone else’s life.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue