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Sonoma County says not yet to hair salons seeking to reopen

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Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase said Tuesday it is still too dangerous to reopen hair salons and barbershops that have been closed for 10 weeks during the coronavirus pandemic, a decision that left many salon owners baffled and dismayed.

“We do understand that safety is No. 1 with our clients. So we will continue to comply and follow orders,” said Giselle Salazar, owner of the Color Bar Salon in Petaluma. “But I think as hairdressers there’s a lot we can do to ensure sanitary conditions and take care of our clients. It’s unfortunate that we’re not getting the chance to do that.”

Mase announced her decision only hours after Gov. Gavin Newsom gave Sonoma County and most other counties in the state permission to reopen local hair-cutting businesses. While she has often followed Newsom’s lead on pandemic-related guidelines, Mase said she is not ready to phase in haircuts after examining local coronavirus infection rates, hospitalization numbers and continued PPE shortages in the county, among other red flags.

Mase has specific concerns with that line of work in a period of contagion.

“It’s very close, one-on-one interaction between two people, for a prolonged period of time,” she said. “It could be a half-hour, it could be three hours, as we all know. It’s an indoor setting. There are often going to be smaller establishments that don’t have a lot of air exchange.”

Mase also noted that many hair customers use bathrooms and other common areas while waiting for their appointments.

“All of that makes it a little bit more risky,” she said. “Which is why we want to see where our data is before we move toward opening indoor facilities like that.”

Hairdressers are worried the OK sign will come too late. Salazar said she did not accept an SBA loan, fearing it would plunge her into debt. She is grateful to be receiving unemployment benefits.

“Still, it made it a challenge,” she said. “I lease a condo in Rohnert Park. I don’t get rent forgiveness. And I’ve got a shop that also doesn’t get rent forgiveness. Now my savings are being drained.”

Salazar worries, too, about her four employees. Some hair salons don’t have employees at all, but rather operate on a commission basis, with hairdressers more or less renting space in chairs. Those workers have their own overhead — trimming tools, shampoo supplies and, perhaps soon, personal protective equipment.

That’s the case for Danielle Molkenbuhr, an independent contractor who cuts hair at Halo Salon in Santa Rosa. After a series of complications, she finally began getting unemployment checks three weeks ago. Once she gets to back to work, Molkenbuhr said, it will take her at least a couple months to recover from the lost wages.

“Because the thing is with my business, the second I walk in the door, I have to pay in advance for that month,” she explained. “I’m already set back, because I didn’t make any money the last month.”

What vexes many stylists — and people in adjacent industries, like manicurists and tattoo artists — is that training in sanitary procedures is a prerequisite for the job.

“As hairdressers, we’ve spoken amongst each other, and we sometimes feel it’s unfair that certain businesses are opening before us,” Salazar said. “We go to school to learn about sanitation operations, even more than cutting hair.”

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Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

When they do get back to the shop, haircutters will face an array of new guidelines aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

Newsom’s office posted an extensive list (61 separate bulleted items) at the covid19.ca.gov website, developed in collaboration with the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology.

They include things like face coverings for workers and clients, removal of magazines and “test” products, regular disinfecting of shears and clippers, frequent cleaning of barber chairs and shampoo bowls, and, of course, the now-customary 6 feet of social distancing.

Mase has at times moved more slowly than allowed by the state government. But she is in agreement with Newsom’s specific recommendations in many sectors.

“I would advise that all businesses start looking at industry-specific mitigation measures, and start looking at the state,” she said Tuesday. “If and when we do open up these areas, I doubt very much we would differ very much from the state in guidance. Everybody is agreeing that guidance is pretty good.”

Local salon owners and employees insist they will be ready for the new regulations when allowed to resume.

“I’ve been prepared all along,” Molkenbuhr said. “Personally I could start tomorrow.”

Jeffery Tilton Jr., who co-owns Wash & Brushup Co. in Healdsburg, said he has stocked up on the necessary sanitization products, broken up the shop into separate stations for clients to move through and is planning to space out customers by keeping every other chair empty.

“Honestly, I went from thinking we’d have to use face shields — I bought everyone two of them — to hearing that it will be face masks,” he said. “It already seems like a huge improvement. We’re excited and ready, but we want to make sure it feels safe for everybody.”

Not everyone shares Tilton’s patience. Local hairdressers say they have received a constant torrent of phone calls from customers who are seeing a bit too much gray in the mirror or feeling a little shaggy around the ears and neck.

Some stylists also are aggravated at the slow pace.

“I feel I’m trained, and I can keep my clients safe,” Molkenbuhr said. “I’m eager and ready to go back. It’s just this fear-mongering that has made clients scared to come in. I don’t want to come back to the shop to find I have no clients.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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