For California salon owners, like Michael Mejia of Frank E’s Barbershop, navigating the pandemic has been anything but easy. The Contra Costa county-based barbershop owner and Andis Company educator has faced an onslaught of constant closures, reopenings, and new regulations as a direct result of COVID-19’s impact on the state’s salon industry. Now, thanks to Governor Gavin Newsom’s new tiered reopening framework, salon professionals have finally been given the green light to reopen their businesses indoors, depending on their respective county’s health orders. Still, despite the good news, salon professionals have a number of concerns about the future and what it means for their businesses.
We spoke to Mejia about his thoughts on Gov. Newsom’s reopening system, the current status of his business, as well as his plans for the future.
The Tease: Under Governor Newsom’s new four-tiered plan, hair salons and barbershops were finally allowed to reopen indoors, depending on their county’s health orders. When the plan was first released, what were your initial thoughts?
Michael Mejia: The initial thought was that I’m glad it’s happening. I do understand that the whole industry has the community’s concerns of health and safety. But, given the confinements of cutting [hair] outside, I’m just glad that they made that move, especially with all of the education that the state of California has done in making us go over safety standards, regulations, diseases, and stuff like that. That’s a huge part of the curriculum, so it seems like that part was ignored when they were making the decision, but again I’m sure that they had the public health’s best interest. So, we kind of worked with that and given the constraints, it was just really good news to finally be able to open and get people in.
Did you find the plan confusing at all?
Mejia: So, for me, no. In my county, we were already in a good spot, so we just had to hear from the government that it would be okay. For other counties that may not have been aware of where they stood, to hear that all of California is opening up, that sparked major confusion initially for everybody because they just heard the announcement that they could go back to work. The caveat was depending on your county and the amount of cases had to be taken into consideration. That was a little bit of a misconception at the very beginning. I think a lot of the public had the biggest confusion. The public just heard the blanket statement that all salons and barbershops are going to be able to open. But, that really wasn’t the case. So, it’s more of getting information to the public so that it was clear on what the issues were as far as the difference between the counties and what that initial statement actually meant.
When the news first came out about salons being able to reopen indoors, did you find that you had a lot of customers reaching out to you on whether your barbershop would be reopening?
Mejia: Yeah, absolutely! With the way it came out, Governor Newsom had announced it but, he announced it to just the general public. So, the day before, I actually heard [the news] and got the information myself. I had clients texting me and calling me, saying that Governor Newsom opened it up and I had to tell them all, “That’s awesome, but let me do some research before I can say that I can actually see people.” That was the hardest thing, too. It wasn’t as if we got any announcement or there was any information posted to us as the professionals to say, “Hey, this is what we’re going to do. This is when we’re going to make the announcement and this is how it’s going to be filtered out to the public.” We found out when everybody else found out.
How have these new guidelines impacted your business and your current plans?
Mejia: It’s impacted it quite a bit. Any initial plans of growth have definitely been halted. You still make plans to continue to grow your business, but you’re just kind of waiting out to see how things play out. You’re treading water right now. You have so many factors going on right now that makes it hard to expand or pursue the goal of building your business. You have the election. You have the pandemic. And, here in California, now you have the fires. That is taking a huge toll, not only on the growth, but on just maintaining your business.
So, in California, you’re dealing with a whole bunch of things, not just the pandemic. But, in terms of the pandemic, as things go on, you know all of us hairdressers and barbers are now bracing for the winter. As things get colder, people get colds and the flu. So, what’s that going to look like? Are we going to have to possibly brace for another round of people staying at home and us not being able to work? A lot of us are concerned about that.
What’s happening now with your business?
Mejia: Initially, I did try to work outdoors. I did that for maybe about two weeks, but due to the heat and the fire happening, I wasn’t able to continue to do so. I had to remain closed. Even then, working outside, you’re only doing 50-60% of what you normally would do because people don’t want to come outside in the middle of summertime unless they’re completely desperate to get a haircut. With the air quality as well, that makes it even less, if they’re sitting outside for 30-45 mins. Even with the tent, the breeze still brings in the ash so it was very difficult.
I was very happy that I was able to work back inside. Even working back inside, the time to clean up and everything like that, as well as then having to wear the mask consistently all day does take a huge toll on you. But, it’s better than the alternative of not wearing it and then having to deal with any of the repercussions of not wearing it.
You mentioned that you were only able to work outside for two weeks due to the wildfires. How close were you to the wildfires?
Mejia: I wasn’t very close at all. Thank goodness! I didn’t have to evacuate. We didn’t have to worry about that. Where I live in the Tri-Valley area, there’s mountains and hills surrounding all of us. So, what happens is that the smoke just kind of rests in the valley throughout the day. There’s no breeze from the ocean or anywhere else to move it out of the way. The smoke makes the air so thick, it just kind of settles in that little bit of the valley. So, the air quality is horrible. We’ve all been affected, if not directly by the fires, indirectly because of the air quality and then also with the pandemic as well. For California hairdressers and barbers, it’s just been one hit after another. Unfortunately, there have been many casualties due to things that have been going on. The fires just added to the pandemic. It’s very difficult because I don’t think anyone can plan for this.
How long has your barbershop been open?
Mejia: I’ve been open about a month now. Fortunately for me, my county has been one of those counties that hasn’t been hit that hard. So, when they made the announcement that I could open up outside, I immediately could do that. Now, when they made the announcement that we could open inside given certain provisions, I was in one of those counties that could open up immediately. So, for me, I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to work for a month now and most of my clients are extremely happy that I’m open.
When you reopened indoors, did you have to open with any specific modifications to your salon?
Mejia: The information that we got was to keep the same standards and just be very vigilant on those standards that we opened with in June. We just had to continue with the standards that we had when we did the initial reopening and then also, make any sort of modifications that we think we could do to improve those. I know a lot of salons were making sure that they had meetings with their staff about how to check in patients — whether they wait in the care and then you text them to come in or that no one can come early. You know, just making sure everybody’s on the same page and that none of their clients kind of slip up.
Barbershop owners and salon owners have been on somewhat of a rollercoaster ride of reopenings and closing due to the pandemic. What have you taken away from this whole experience?
Mejia: It takes its toll on the service in the sense that when you usually come to a barbershop and salon, a lot of times that’s the one thing that a lot of people do for themselves — take care of their hair. You know, when you get a shampoo from me, I put a hot towel on the face of my guys that I soak the night before in eucalyptus, peppermint, and tea-tree oil. So, while they’re at the shampoo bowl, they get this nice, hot steamy towel and it feels amazing. I can’t do that anymore because they would have to take off their mask for an extended period of time. So, it does take away from the experience but, right now, I’ve seen understanding from clients. Most of my clients are like, “You know what? That stuff is awesome and I do appreciate that but, right now if I could just get a haircut, I’d be happy.”
I think the industry itself understands that this is not the time where we can do these extra things and even the general public understands that. But, not being able to do the bare essentials of getting a haircut is the frustrating part because I can’t even offer beverages at the shop anymore. For my younger guys, I have bottled Cokes because I’m an old school barbershop. For my older guys who come in during the evenings, I have a shot of whiskey for them. I can’t do those things anymore. So, it’s taken away from the kind-of laid-back, pleasant experience. People are still happy to get their haircuts but, it’s not the same as it used to be.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.