Montana Salons Debut A New Look As They Reopen

May 14, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed how massage therapists, nail techs, tattoo artists and barbers do their work. Hair salons and other personal care services are reopening for business, but under new guidelines from state and local officials.

MTPR's Edward O’Brien got a haircut this week and takes us along to show what’s changed at one Missoula barber shop.

In the pre-pandemic world, I was a haircut-every-two-weeks kind of guy. It’s been two months since my last cut at Shear Perfection on Missoula’s University of Montana campus. A lot’s changed since then.

For one, no more walk-ins. It’s appointment only. A sign on the salon’s door instructs clients to wait outside until called in. Owner Carole Haidle who’s wearing a mask, quickly greets me and escorts me in. I’m also wearing a mask. It still feels odd.

And then there’s that brand-new, mandatory check-in process.

"So we’re going to take your temperature, ok, and we’re going to log it in this book," Haidle says. "These are requirements from the health department. It’s reading 97.5 today, Ed. Now, have you been out of town, out of Missoula county in the last couple of weeks?"

O'Brien: Nope.

“Have you been exposed to anybody that might be COVID-19 positive?

O'Brien: Nope, not that I know of. Kept it pretty close to the house, actually.

As a hair stylist she’s following state and local guidelines requiring the screenings, social distancing and strict new cleaning and sanitation regimes.

In late April, Gov. Steve Bullock outlined new guidelines for personal service shops like salons to reopen during phase 1 of his statewide economic reopening plan. But counties can take a slower approach to opening, and Missoula County pushed that date back, calling for barbers to open their doors this week.

After the brief health screening it’s back to Haidle’s booth. She runs her fingers through the mop that passes for my hair to size it up.

"It’s feeling awfully, awfully, poofy. It’s got some volume behind it.

"It’s so good to be working again," Haidle adds.

It’s been a long six weeks for Haidle. After my haircut, we meet outside her salon, remain physically distant and keep our masks on as we catch up. She remembers March 25th vividly; the day the state issued its shut down order.

"It was a sad day. We were not quite prepared for that; in a sense we were, but maybe we were in denial, thinking, 'it’s not going to happen just yet. We’re not going to get closed down just yet.' You’re just hoping that you could work another day."

It would be six weeks until Haidle and her two co-workers would see another day of work. That’s a month and half of no income.

"It’s been very hard. Very full of anxiety and the unknown. It’s sad because you're missing your people, your clients – your livelihood."

As an independent contractor, Haidle wasn’t able to receive unemployment benefits until a few weeks ago. Self-employed workers are not normally eligible for those payments, but that changed under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES Act.

"The unemployment office had set up a new system for our type of industry. So this was new to them too. It was very frustrating because they had a lot of glitches in their system. We were trying to work with them as they were trying to work out their kinks too. So it did take some time, and it was hard, very hard."

Damon Dorsey, president of the Wisconsin-based American Barber Association, says the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for the barber industry.

"Devastating in terms of the closing of barbershops and income to barbers."

As difficult as the pandemic’s been on Montana’s stylists, Dorsey says it’s been a nightmare in other states.

"It’s different than, of course, if you’re in New York City, and governors are doing different things and local governments is doing different things."

That’s how it worked in Montana. Last Friday, Missoula health officer Ellen Leahy said local providers could reopen under new, highly regulated circumstances.

The news elated Shear Perfection’s Carole Haidle. Her phone immediately blew up and her team is booked solid for the next two weeks. She’s also frantically trying to find more cleaning supplies; barbicide, clippercide, hand sanitizers, cotton balls. You name it, she says it’s all back-ordered.

But Haidle says she’ll figure it out and find what she needs. She says she’s a lot more confident now than back in late March.

ABA President Damon Dorsey, meanwhile, suspects many people have a new appreciation for professional haircuts.

"Certainly, people miss their barber, miss their haircut. And it’s just not a haircut. In some places it’s a place just to hang out and see people you haven’t seen for a while, talk to your barber about all kinds of things. Hopefully, maybe after this moves on, we can start to look at barbershops as a lot more than just a place to get a haircut."

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