UPDATE: On July 13, the day Santa Clara County allowed hair salons and barbershops to reopen, the county Public Health Department released a statement in the afternoon that reversed its updated order because it was recently added to the state's monitoring list, effectively shutting down all hair salons by Wednesday, July 15.
La Migliore Salon in Menlo Park used to be booked full of regular clients up to an entire year in advance and close at 5 p.m. most days.
But since reopening June 22, owner Showa Sahle and two other hair stylists have been accepting customers from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. just to make ends meet. Many of her regular customers are understandably afraid to return during a pandemic, she said.
The extended hours have helped the stylists serve around 10 clients each, with 15-minute breaks between appointments in order to properly disinfect the tools and the station and grab a quick breath of fresh air outside before putting back on their masks.
To create an added atmosphere of safety, Sahle's salon also conducts temperature checks and each client is given a basket containing a mask and a clean gown.
With hair cuts allowed under San Mateo County's June 17 revised public health order but still prohibited elsewhere, the experiences of salon and barbershop owners could foreshadow the future of Santa Clara County stylists, who will be allowed to reopen this Monday, July 13.
From interviews with operators in both regions, it's clear the hair service industry is facing a long road to recovery in a pandemic that thrives in close contact and indoor spaces.
For the past several weeks, Sahle has been taking clients from all over the Bay Area — Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, San Jose, San Francisco — and in one instance, Los Angeles. And she could use all of them.
Besides a small loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, one of only ways La Migliore survived the shutdown was through a GoFundMe fundraiser, which netted $11,863. Sahle did not receive unemployment loans or any relief for the shop's rent. Her employees also either have hourly wages or work on commission.
"We're trying to help everybody," Sahle said. "And we're trying to protect ourselves financially so we can pay our bills."
Down the block on Santa Cruz Avenue, Erik Mollegaart, owner of DJ's Hair Design, said most people seem ecstatic to get their hair cut after four months of sheltering in place. Inside DJ's this week, masked clients sat in partitioned stations as they got their hair cut or colored.
But, like Sahle, Mollegaart is extending his hours, opening his doors as early as 6 a.m. and closing them as late as 9 p.m to take in as many customers as he once did before the pandemic. The owner said he also gave the keys to his stylists so they can work when he's not around and started to operate DJ's on Sundays.
"I'm a Viking," said Mollegaart, 68, who is from Copenhagen. "Those are tough old birds, and I'm one of them."
Not all salons can use the extended hours, however. Diane Pham, owner of Diane's Salon in Portola Valley, said business is slow. And at Hair Mill on Chestnut Avenue, a barbershop that sits between La Migliore and DJ's, owner David Klemish stood outside a shop that was full of empty vintage barber chairs by 1 p.m., with no appointments scheduled for the rest of the day.
"Everybody cut their own hair so they don't need me until it grows out," Klemish said. "Business is about 95% down. I just think no one wants to go out."
Klemish opened Hair Mills in 1974. Before the pandemic, Hair Mills was a "full house," he said, with four barbers providing haircuts and facial shaves. Now, per county health order, shaves are not allowed. And after one barber retired and another moved to Arizona, the barbershop soon became a solo operation for Klemish.
DJ's and La Migliore experienced a similar fate. Mollegaart said three stylists retired, while Sahle said two stylists didn't return for work. La Migliore is hiring, but applicants are failing to show up for interviews, Sahle said.
"It's exhausting," she said. "We're trying to hire, but people don't seem to want to work."
As a small operation, Klemish said he'll be fine on his own. After this slump, in about three to four weeks, he predicts business will be close to normal again, during which he used to cut an average of 10 customers' hair per day, "easy."
Why the optimistic prediction?
"Hair grows half an inch a month," he laughed.
'Too little, too late'
In Palo Alto's Midtown shopping center, Vincente Alcaraz, the new owner of Urban Style Barber Shop, is getting ready to reopen the 7-year-old business.
"I believe we'll do well," Alcaraz said. "But we will need some help. I need to look for barbers, I need to fill up the chairs — I haven't been working and my wife hasn't been working (but) I have a mortgage, I have bills and I have kids."
Alcaraz said he plans to reopen Urban Style on July 21, a week after Santa Clara County's new order goes into effect, to make sure his shop's social-distancing protocols are approved by the county before he starts booking appointments.
The Hayward resident bought the barbershop from Kathy and Terry Parks, who had been the proud proprietors since 2013 and served everyone from JLS Middle School and Gunn High School students to Stanford University and San Francisco 49ers football players.
But after the countywide shutdown on March 17, the couple quickly realized they couldn't come up with the space's $3,200-per-month rent without any customers or without any help from the federal or local government. (In May, the city of Palo Alto launched a relief fund program that started with $500,000. Kathy said they did not qualify.) The landlord offered some help, but by then, Kathy said, it was "too little, too late."
"When we had a completely profitable business going after seven years of being opened, why would we go into debt for this?" she asked.
On May 1, the Parks family moved to Oregon, where Terry's side of the family currently resides. The couple plans to open a new barbershop near their Portland home under the same name.
Alcaraz, who had been an Urban Style barber for six years, said he purchased the Palo Alto shop to maintain its legacy, its clientele and his and two other barbers' jobs. But even he has trepidation.
"It's a scary time, because this is our livelihood," Alcaraz said. "This is what we do."
At least one local salon wasn't saved by the grace of resilient new owners, kind landlords or community fundraisers.
Near the end of June, Alisa Barnhart closed Mountain View's Allure Salon, which opened in 2005 and, according to Barnhart, operated with around 40-60 independent contractors.
Without any income from the shop, Barnhart said there was no way to meet the space's monthly rent of $14,228. If Allure reopened, the salon could only run at 50% capacity under the county's health order. And if Barnhart wanted to run the salon outside of normal business hours — for example, to accept more clients like DJ's or La Migliore Salon — there was another $100 attached for every hour the building is used outside of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The landlord was willing to help, she said, but only if she signed a new lease that came with a 3% increase in rent.
"The bottom line is, small business owners were not taken care of," she said. "PPP loans, all of that, were not going to help."
Like all salon owners interviewed in this story, Barnhart said she was running a profitable business before the pandemic. For now, Barnhart does not have any plans to reopen another salon.
"It just all happened so quick," she said. "I can't personally open another shop now."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.