Salons Take a Haircut During Pandemic

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James Colgan was about to open his third James Colgan Hair Salon in Cow Hollow last March when the pandemic struck. A year later, he’s pared his business to just two chairs on 18th Street, a location above which he’s lived for the past 13 years. He was forced to close a 25-chair salon in Union Square situated on the 16th floor of 166 Geary Street he ran for nine years and took a $100,000 loss on the aborted Cow Hollow effort.

“It’s absolutely devastated our industry,” he said. “No one is interested in going to a salon full of people. People aren’t even going into buildings.” 

Dekko Salon, which operated from a loft on Indiana Street, shutdown permanently after an 18-year run. It employed five staff and 10 stylists when it closed in August. Founder Jules Chan said some of the team found work at other hairdressers. Several changed professions altogether. 

“There isn’t anyone I know who is working fully with clients,” she said. “Everyone I’ve spoken to so far have lost at least 50 percent of their clientele.”

Dekko received $7,000 from the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal initiative to provide relief to businesses indirectly harmed by COVID-19, but Chan said it wasn’t enough. 

“It was a far cry from what medium-size and large companies got,” she said. “No one was thinking about the small mom and pop businesses. They got neglected I feel.”

Chan transitioned to selling hair products. Her JuJuChan line had been a side business before the public health crises, but after getting serious about placing it in online stores over the past year she’s surpassed what she’d have earned at the salon.

Since the City relaxed restrictions in late-January, other hair cutting shops in Dogpatch and Potrero Hill have re-opened, including Dolci Salon, La Fleur Hair & Nail Spa and Dogpatch Barber and Shave. 

Salvatore Cimino, sole proprietor of 1512 Barber Shop, is limiting himself to Saturdays. Concerned about COVID transmission, Cimino stayed closed last fall when the City permitting re-opening for 12 weeks. It was the first time the shop had been shut since his father, Flo, started the business on 20th Street in 1958.

Cimino is hoping that by operating one day a week he’ll be able to retain clients while assuaging worries over liability. The six days off gives him time to be tested.

“I was taken by surprise about re-opening. No way we should be open yet. You can’t be in that close proximity to a person,” he said. “I’m still trying to make heads and tails of the OSHA guidelines, what we’re allowed to do and not to do.” 

Beyond standard sterilization and elimination of magazines and other items multiple people might touch, the Center for Disease Control advises hair cutting establishments to be appointment only and not allow customers in waiting areas. California goes further in recommending the use of eye protection, face shields and gloves in addition to cleaning with vacuums with High Efficiency Particulate Air filters rather than sweeping, which can disperse pathogens.

Dogpatch Barber and Shave owner Christopher Cream Eliares said the loss of a waiting room is a particular negative. “The staple of a barber shop is to have a community where people can come and have a conversation and this takes away from it,” he said.

At his two shops on Third Street, Eliares has chairs spaced eight feet apart with dividers. He’s fortunate to have large windows for air flow. Colgan, who works with two others but never simultaneously, had to install a sliding window for better circulation at his establishment.

Eliares said demand has dropped 40 to 60 percent. A GoFundMe appeal he launched last year raised $21,000, for which he’s grateful. “Despite everything going on the blessing is we have gotten a ton of support from the community,” he said.

Every hair cutter who spoke to The View thought there’d been a significant exodus from San Francisco, particularly among tech workers.

Chan worries that the traditional business model might be at risk. “Sadly, I think the whole profession is going to change,” she said, suggesting people might get used to partners cutting their hair or remain nervous about pandemics. “A year is long enough to start a new routine,” she said.

Still, home styling may not work for everyone. “Since we opened up, people haven’t had new haircuts in a while,” said Rito Arellano, lead barber at Dogpatch. “Wives, girlfriends, partners have been butchering their hair and we have to fix that.”

Based on conversations with his customers, Colgan believes people will still want to get out. “Working remotely, you see the affects happening to them and it’s quite jarring how weird a balance it is,” he said. While people can keep up with home-based chores, they’ve found it hard to shut off. “They are on email 24/7.” 

Colgan found his own silver lining. Despite losing two of his establishments, the pandemic forced him to “get off the hamster wheel” and enjoy other things in life. “That has been a massive awakening for me,” he said.