Before the coronavirus pandemic completely upended life in the United States, a typical scene at Uyen Le’s Beauty Bar in Colorado included dozens of happy customers, some laughing, others sipping wine or martinis from the full bar. Some would chat and hug staff, sharing stories while they got their hair and nails done in preparation for a special event with loved ones.
Now in the sprawling salon, only five stylists donning masks, gloves and face shields tend to five clients, who also wear masks. No one hugs and there are no large in-person events to look forward to. Everyone is focused on keeping each other safe as states slowly reopen while trying to keep the virus at bay.
“It’s just eerie in the salon, it's quiet,” Le told NBC News. “We used to do a lot of bridal parties, baby showers, birthday parties. Our job is so personal that we miss that part of it.”
In many parts of Colorado, personal services such as hair salons began reopening May 1, revealing a strange new world necessary for safety in an industry known for intimacy. While salon openings have been subject to different rules state by state, nearly two months since the social distancing measures began, more than 35 states have started to reopen their economies — leading to cautious new realities for business owners and customers.
Le owns two Beauty Bar locations in Colorado Springs and has 80 employees, but Colorado’s reopening restrictions require no more than 10 people in a facility, so she has brought back five staff at a time at each location.
The salons have been taking extra sanitation measures including having customers wait in their cars for their turn, making them wear masks, taking their temperature, asking them questions, and having staff sanitize any areas where they sit and touch.
Le said the new safety precautions are important to keeping everyone safe.
“Everybody is nervous to come back to normal. We want it, but we’re also scared,” she said. “You try to do the best that you can so we can all get back to some kind of normalcy.”
But it was still also strange to think of the new reality, especially with Mother’s Day coming up.
“We’re not going to have that, the mothers, grandmothers coming in — it’s crowded. We’re always busy and it’s just not the same,” she said.
“I have clients who have been with me for 15 years who I can’t hug,” Le said.
One of her clients who had been with her for a long time gave her a card when she reopened, she said.
“To look at the card and think, I have to go and disinfect this card, that’s what makes me sad,” Le added.
Still, she hoped the salons reopening could provide some sense of peace and intimacy for those looking to leave the house and to take their minds off the current situation, even just for a little while.
“With us being in quarantine and being away from people, even that sense of touch, even though we have gloves on and masks on and shields, I think it’s a lot better than nothing,” she said.
“It’s a peace of mind to be able to talk to someone besides the person you live with,” she said with a laugh. “To be able to joke again and not just think about coronavirus.”
In northern Colorado, Brooke Hansen has been giving free haircuts to medical professionals on the front lines of the coronavirus battle twice a day in between shifts at her recently reopened salons.
The free haircuts, a project she calls “haircuts for heroes,” take place at the UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital, where her sister works, and the UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies from 7 a.m. to 9.a.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Since May 1, Hansen said she has woken up at around 4:30 a.m. to get ready early to get to the medical facilities, where she and her colleagues give dry cuts to health care professionals in 15-minute intervals.
“We were looking for a way to give back,” Hansen, who owns Suite C and Frenchie’s Modern Nail Care, said. “The thing about being a stylist is we love the instant gratification that haircuts and colors give to people.”
Sometimes the medical workers talk about their families, but a lot of the time they just relax and sit quietly, she said.
Then she makes her way to work at one of her salons, where she currently works longer hours but makes less money, because the reopening restrictions have placed limits on the number of customers she is allowed to book.
Hansen said staff now take extra precautions and spend extra time sanitizing the salon. They come in early to make sure everything is sanitized, taking more time between clients and using bleach water to clean stations and Barbicide to clean all tools. Everyone must wear masks, and they frequently change smocks and wipe down the bathroom.
“So far, so good. Everyone’s been pretty gracious,” she said. “People are just excited to be back to work, but everything looks very different.”
After the work day ends at the salon, Hansen returns to one of the medical facilities to continue giving haircuts before getting home at 9 p.m.
Hansen said despite the long hours, overall it’s been “really nice to be able to make people feel better and hopefully give them a little bit of normalcy for a while.”
At Montage Salon in northern Colorado Springs, owner Dakota Malacara and his staff removed chairs so stations were more than six feet apart, closed down the reception area, stopped beverage services and kept their doors locked.
“It feels very strange,” he said.
Malacara said he had been working 11- to 13-hour days, and as many as 25 people might have been in his salon at once on a busy day prior to the pandemic. Now he only has two stylists working, however.
He said his biggest concern was a surge in the infection rate.
“Of course, we’re waiting to hear what the numbers will be now that stores are starting to reopen slowly. We in the salon situation cannot be six feet away from our customers,” he said.
“It will be important to see where the numbers are in a couple of weeks: Is there an increase in infection rate? Will that have an impact on salons again, will we shut down again? So there’s still a lot of uncertainty going on.”
Malacara said he knew several stylists in different states who had to close their salons for good.
“I think if salons across the country are required to close again in the future, if there is another spike in infections, there will be another wave of salons that will probably not be able to weather the storm and close permanently,” he said.
Malacara said that despite the limitations, there was still an instant bond between the staff and their customers “by nature of the salon industry.”
“But not being able to shake a hand or hug after the service is over with gratitude — that really just feels sort of sad and somber," he said. "I’m giving a kind of a self hug to my guests and that’s the best I can do at this time."