New Normal: Expect your haircut experience to be quieter, cleaner and more expensive
TORONTO -- Anita Skaff was thrilled to walk into her hair salon this week for her first cut and colour after months in pandemic lockdown. But she found a different place.
The faces were familiar, even behind masks, but the customary hugs were gone. Markers on the floor told her where to stand, acrylic screens were in place around the reception desk and shampoo station. Staff repeatedly wiped down surfaces and asked a client who was early for her appointment to wait in her car until she got a text.
Skaff, an Edmonton assistant principal and mother of three, has been going to Revive Hair Loft for five years. This time it felt much emptier. Skaff struggled to hear her stylist Nicole Fusco who wore a mask and shield for the entirety of the three-hour appointment.
“I felt so horrible for her. She looked so flushed,” she told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
“But this is what safe looks like.”
Many Canadians have been dreaming of their first haircut or colour, but they likely haven’t envisioned how the experience has changed since they last sat in a barber or salon chair.
Residents of Canada’s western provinces have been scrambling to get under the scissors – to perhaps fix a do-it-yourself job – since public haircuts have been reinstated, beginning with Manitoba in early May.
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Many shops and salons are asking clients to come alone and not to arrive early. The well-leafed-through magazines are gone and many salons no longer have waiting areas.
Many establishments are screening clients for symptoms of COVID-19, while waiving cancellation fees for those feeling unwell. Some may even take temperatures.
Masks are now commonplace, and in some cases required, for clients, though as of yet, no Canadian jurisdiction has gone as far as making that mandatory.
You can generally expect to see your hairstylist or barber in a mask and maybe a face shield. They also might not be as chatty as usual. Some health authorities are recommending that talking be kept to a minimum and nixed altogether in face-to-face situations, such as during hair washing.
Chairs are spaced out to allow for at least two metres of physical distancing, clients are expected to disinfect their hands upon arrival and to keep all their belongings, including jackets and bags, with them. If drinks are served, they come in paper cups.
Services in many salons have been reduced, with some not offering blow drying (because of the concerns about circulating the virus in the air), shampoos (over concerns about extended face to face exposure) or full colour jobs that would typically take several hours. In some cases, services that can’t be done with a mask on, like shaving beards, are not being offered.
Skaff says she walked out of the salon Tuesday feeling renewed after weeks of seeing her roots and streaks of white, but the experience felt more impersonal, even as she and her stylist joked about the masks.
“It’s for everyone’s safety. It’s how it has to be. If you don’t want that, stay home.”
‘DEFINITELY WON’T BE NORMAL’
British Columbia is the only province so far to allow all beauty establishments, including hair and nail salons, and estheticians to reopen. Prince Edward Island is allowing hair services to resume Friday, and Quebec announced this week that personal care services will be allowed to resume outside of Montreal on June 1.
Residents of Ontario, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and the three territories don’t yet know when it might be their turn in the chair.
But whenever it comes, that first hair appointment will look much different than the last.
“It definitely won’t be normal, but everyone is working hard to ensure it feels as normal as possible,” says Cameron DeBaie, chair of the Cosmetology Association of Nova Scotia.
His organization is recommending members do a health screening with clients when they book, but stops short of taking temperatures.
“That falls outside our regulatory scope. We aren’t health officials, although individual salons could make that a policy.”
CANS is also recommending that all stylists and estheticians wear masks when working on a client and that customers be required to wear one, too. That means having them available for purchase should a client not bring one, and forgoing any services that don’t allow a mask to be worn.
CANS is also advising members who are concerned about exposure to the virus to only take bookings from existing clients.
DeBaie, a Halifax makeup artist who specializes in lash extensions, says that will be his policy for the foreseeable future.
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“There is already a trust relationship with my clients and I know they wouldn’t put me at risk,” he says. “There is concern that people are so desperate for a haircut that they will say anything to get an appointment, even if they aren’t feeling well.”
Mark Fusco, who owns the Edmonton’s Revive Hair Loft with his sister Nicole, says they “walked through the salon about a hundred times” to figure out what changes needed to be made – everything from ensuring an inner vestibule door is propped open, to marking out physical distancing reminders on the floor.
The salon had clear plastic screens installed around the reception desk and between its three shampoo stations, and invested in a fogging machine that sprays a non-toxic disinfectant throughout the premises every night.
Fusco relied on the advice of his wife, an ICU nurse, who suggested the salon adopt a “power hour” of cleaning routine. The debit machine and cutting stations are wiped down after each use, but every four hours, the whole salon gets a deep clean.
Before reopening, Fusco’s wife hosted a video call with the salon’s 10 staff to teach them the proper way to use masks and shields. He says everyone is getting used to wearing them, but they just aren’t comfortable.
“The masks can make you feel hot or claustrophobic or itchy… But we will power through it.”
The salon hasn’t made masks mandatory for clients, but Fusco says about nine out of 10 are wearing them.
Revive isn’t doing a health screening with clients but has posted signs on the door that remind people not to enter if they have symptoms of COVID-19.
“We are never going to know (whether someone is sick). We can only do this in good faith,” says Fusco. “And we have had a couple of people phone to postpone their appointment because they weren’t feeling well, so we appreciated that. I think people are grasping the gravity of the situation.”
Jade Wade, a stylist at Proper Hair Lounge in Vancouver, says she’s put off returning to work until June 2 even though the salon is opening May 26. She says she’ll use the week to get cleaning supplies, protective equipment and to double or triple her stock of tools.
“I will be booking 15 to 20 minutes between clients to sanitize everything, but in case I’m running behind, I want to have extra tools on hand. I will feel more comfortable if I’m over-prepared,” says Wade, who has been in the business 15 years.
While she’s excited to return to doing what she loves, it’s “nerve-wracking” to think about working in a mask all the time.
Anxiety is the mindset in the industry right now, says Greg Robins, executive director of the Beauty Council of Western Canada.
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“We’ve been told to stay home, only go out for essentials and to stay away from other people and now boom, they have to be up and close with people all day, five days a week. Some are worried about that.”
He estimates that a little more than half of the organization’s members are open now and the others are taking a wait and see approach.
Alain Audet, executive director of the national trade group Allied Beauty Association, sees the same kind of split. About half of the organization’s members are ready to open the first day they can, eager to get back to work and to try to get back on financial track. The rest are holding off. Some are fearful of exposure to the virus and others don’t have childcare for their kids or can’t get their staff to return.
“I think it’s the same in clientele. Some want to be in the chair the very first day and others are going to wait until they feel safe. We all have to learn to live with this new reality.”
For Heather Wenman, CEO and artistic director of Studio H in London, Ont., the new reality is a laundry list of changes.
Her full-service salon and spa located in a former downtown warehouse, will open for six hours, close for an hour of deep cleaning, and then will open again for another six hours with a second shift of staff. Some spa and massage services will be discontinued for now, allowing two private rooms to be used for hair services for frontline workers or those with compromised immunity.
Every second cutting station is gone and walls have been installed between each chair. Staff will wear masks, shields, goggles and aprons. A middle shampoo station has been converted to handwashing for staff.
Clients will be required to bring masks and to sanitize their hands upon arrival. Wenman also plans to take the temperatures of staff and is considering requiring that of clients, too.
She has also shifted away from a shared phone for the salon to being fully mobile and replaced touchscreen point-of-sale systems with individual tablets that can be sanitized.
Sample bars for products are no more and the days of juggling a number of clients at time are gone, says Wenman. Each client will be seen by only one Studio H stylist and capacity in the salon is being reduced by about half.
Wenman says staff were initially fearful about coming back – whenever that’s allowed to happen in Ontario – but that resistance seems to be easing.
“I do think we will need to think carefully about anxiety among those working in our industry because so much of all of this is new and it will take a toll.”
‘CLEAN TO CLINICAL CLEAN’
It’s inevitable in many facets of life that heightened consumer awareness about hygiene will persist out of this pandemic, and Robins at the Beauty Council of Western Canada thinks that’s only good for the industry.
His organization’s Beauty Safe hygiene certification program has seen more than 4,200 completions in the last month alone.
“I think we are seeing salons go from clean to clinical clean,” says Audet at the Allied Beauty Association.
Sanitation will take on front and centre visibility to clients, he says.
Shifts in the beauty industry to manage the threat of COVID-19 will be a permanent transformation due to the investment and retraining involved, and the expectations of consumers, says Jeff Alford, CEO of CBON Group, which provides hospital-grade infection control products.
He says his company struggled to get the message about the importance of sanitation through to Canada’s hair industry but COVID-19 has changed that.
CBON received orders from that sector in the last month that equalled all of 2019. The company has also seen huge demand for a free infection control certification program.
Alford says the public will come to expect hair professionals to demonstrate their sanitation measures from now on, meaning it will become practice to disinfect the chair, the cape and the tools in front of the customer.
DeBaie in Halifax expects to showcase his cleanliness practices for clients when he’s allowed to reopen.
“The old model was that you don’t bother the client with seeing you clean. That will change. Even just smelling a cleaner makes you feel more confident, but now clients will want to see that clean, too.”
FEWER SERVICES, SAFETY FEE
Physical distancing requirements and enhanced cleaning means that salons and barber shops are seeing fewer clients in a day, while having to pay increased costs.
Some salons, already burdened by being closed for two months, are adding an extra charge to cover it all, a move backed by some trade groups. Wenman, who operates an ammonia-free and scent-free salon, says she will add a safety fee but will keep it as low as possible.
Lysa Fina, owner of the Grateful Head in Toronto, says after 15 years in business, she feels like she’s starting from scratch again. But she doesn’t expect to pass on the costs.
“I really dislike the idea of charging clientele for things that are mandatory. I feel it’s my job as proprietor to adhere to those regulations and absorb the cost. It’s just proper business practice as far as I’m concerned,” she told CTVNews.ca via email.
Talia Lapointe, who provides permanent makeup and cosmetic tattooing at Brows on Pointe salon in Mission, B.C., will provide fewer services as she ramps up to a full schedule of clients on June 1. She has removed teeth whitening and lip tattooing from her service list because those can’t be done with a client wearing a mask.
That, along with booking about a third fewer clients a day, will be a financial hit.
“I’m excited to open again because this business means so much to me, but I’m also nervous about how things will go.”
One plus is that there is huge pent-up demand for hair, nail and other esthetic services, says Robins, along with a new-found gratitude for them. He’s even heard from members offered as much as $500 by those desperate to land a fast appointment.
“We forget the magic that beauty professionals do on a day-to-day basis. So when those services are taken away, we really come to appreciate them.”
QUIETER, MORE STERILE
So, is an indulgent, carefree day at the spa a thing of the past?
Those in the industry wonder if all the necessary health and safety rules will make visiting a salon or spa no longer feel like pampering, celebration or escapism. They fear it’s inevitable that salons and spas will become more become regimented, quieter and sterile.
“We don’t want customers to feel afraid or have their entire experience be about safety. We are in the caring industry,” says Wenman at Studio H. “We need people to feel safe but that the environment is not unfriendly.”
Robins wonders about the long-term toll of doing business a new way.
“People get into this business because they are people people. They are extroverts, and artists and creative types,” he says.
“We are huggers and we care for people and many clients come in and pour out their hearts. How will we manage that in a COVID world?”
Katrina Shelast, owner of Grow Conscious Hair Company in Port Coquitlam, B.C., calls herself a hairapist. She worries that under new rules salon experiences will become impersonal and rigid transactions, rather than the gab-fests she loves to have with clients.
“We’ll definitely be asking of people things we’ve never had to ask of them before. We all have to get used to that.”
She expects some people won’t like the new normal salon experience, but too much is at stake, she says. Shelast suffered a near-fatal pulmonary embolism after a surgery just as the pandemic was arriving, and is putting off reopening her salon until she feels entirely safe to do so.
She worries that some in her industry aren’t taking physical distancing or using masks seriously enough.
“Imagine getting a call from health authorities saying someone who came to your salon has tested positive (for COVID-19). You, your staff and every person you’ve touched since then, maybe dozens of people are now at risk. That’s how quickly all of it can change.”
WHAT’S HERE TO STAY?
There is little consensus on what the pandemic is going to permanently change in salons, barber shops and spas.
One day, Fusco in Edmonton hopes to see the plastic dividers gone and a waiting room back in his salon. He also hopes to stop ordering masks whenever the threat of COVID-19 recedes.
“I think a big thing is that you can’t see people smile through a mask. That makes a difference here. It’s all an eyebrows game now. I’m hoping it doesn’t take away from the personal connection, but I think the bonds will be stronger than the masks.”
Ultimately, what comes remains out of the pandemic will improve the practices of everything from independent stylists, to full-scale salons, to franchised chains, says Wenman.
While she also hopes plastic barriers and masks will eventually disappear, attention to handwashing and sanitation is here to stay, along with fewer shared touchpoints, and a new appreciation for the importance of staying home when sick.
“We’ll be looking for a better normal.”
New Normal is a CTVNews.ca series looking at how life will change in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Edited by Senior Producer Mary Nersessian
Infographic by Mahima Singh.