When Gov. Greg Abbott on May 5 announced that Texas salons and barbershops could open by the end of the week after almost two months of being closed due to the coronavirus, Headspace Salon owner Laura North said she was surprised that the shop was being permitted to operate so soon.

“We knew pretty much right off the bat that when they told us we could open on May 8 it wasn't going to be feasible that quickly,” North told Community Impact Newspaper. “It really kind of threw us all for a loop and we didn't know how to do that in a safe way.”

Since the initial announcement, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation has released guideline on how to safely reopen salons and barbershops, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also have recommendations they say will allow for the safe operation of businesses.

In Southwest Austin, hair cutting businesses including the South Austin Barber Shop and Salon Mystique in Dripping Springs have announced they will indeed open beginning Friday. Others, such as Headspace, are waiting a bit longer to better navigate the ever-changing landscape during the pandemic before reopening sometime in a the next few weeks.

Birds Barbershop, which operates nine locations in Austin including in South Austin at 5000 W. Slaughter Lane, is not planning to open May 8. However, co-founder Jayson Rapaport said he is planning to reopen in mid-May.

"We were definitely taken a little by surprised with the governor's announcement, but we've been working the past two months trying to understand how Birds is going to operate in this new environment,” Rapaport said. “When we do open, it's about making sure we are the cleanest and safest place to get a haircut in Austin.”

A divided industry

North said that she feels the haircut industry is split on whether opening Friday is too soon or something that is necessary for business to survive.

"The whole industry is pretty divided," she said. “There are a lot of people that believe that salons shouldn't be open for months, and then there's customers and stylists who are knocking down the door and ready to get in here."

Amy Sinclair, the owner of Southwest Austin salon Cobalt Blue, said she is preparing to open May 18. Through the closure, she has continued to interact with clients through virtual appointments and knows the need for services is there.

“Our clientele is excited and desperate and ready to come back,” she said.

Salon Mystique, which will reopen Friday, is a space occupied by independently contracted stylists. Owner Michael Uzuanis said that because the hairdressers at the salon are not technically his staff, the salon did not qualify for government assistance during the temporary closure, making reopening extremely important for him as a landlord and for those who rely on the space to work each day.

In a statement to Community Impact Newspaper, Southwest Austin’s Pigtails and Crewcuts said the business plans to open Monday, May 11 “with the blessing of all of our stylists.”

“We are excited to see our families and fix some of those do's we've seen," the company said, in response to many of the do-it-yourself hair cuts individuals have been doing at home and posting on social media recently.

Rapaport said he expects that Birds, which has more than 180 employees, will see two waves of employees returning to work once they open later this month. The overall response to their opening plan has been positive, and he said he thinks many will come back early on. However, those who are a higher risk for catching the disease or with other responsibilities at home may decide to wait longer.

“I know there's pent-up demand for haircuts; I know I need a haircut really bad, but we're going to do our best,” Rapaport said. “We're going to probably be on a lighter schedule early on, and then as we get more comfortable with it I think the rest of the staff will want to come back on.”

As a salon owner, North said it is her responsibility to find of how a stylist feels and to respect their decisions regarding if they want to return to work or wait.

“I think the majority of them are willing to come back,” North said. “We are all pretty responsible and all feel pretty confident that we can do this in a safe manner.”

What to expect when getting a haircut

Rapaport said Birds has consulted with an infectious disease physician and will be working to put measures in place that follow CDC guidelines.

When they do open, Birds will be by appointment only and will be closing their waiting rooms, a practice many others in the industry are following. Patrons will text the barbershop when they arrive and will be given a reply when the shop is ready for them to come in to be served. Magazines will be removed, and arcade games and drinks will not be offered.

“All of that will be shut down for the time being,” Rapaport said. “It's definitely going to be scaled down just a little bit in terms of the offerings if you were hoping to hang out at Birds like before.”

Customers and staff will be required to wear masks, he said, and temperatures will be taken when both arrive at the shop. Also, blow dryers will not be used to reduce the risk or spreading germs through the air, he said.

North said when Headspace reopens, which could by May 18, they, too, will be requiring stylists and guests to wear masks and following guidelines set by the TDLR. While she expected some strict regulations like in other states—where shampooing and blow-drying hair is being banned—she said regulations in Texas are more lax.

“It's really just keeping safe distances from everyone,” North said. “Wearing masks is going to be a little different, and the state is suggesting that we check clients’ temperatures before they come in. Other than that, it's really kind of just doing the same stuff to sanitize that we've been doing as a salon more diligently.”

The space at Salon Mystique includes 37 individual rooms, which will allow the salon to reopen Friday while following social distancing standards, according to Uzuanis. Similarly, seats at Mystique’s blow-dry bar are spaced at least 6 feet apart.

Pigtails and Crewcuts, a children's hair salon, will require staff and guests ages 10 and up to wear masks as well.

Challenges still remain

While new guidelines and procedures have been put in place, barbers and stylist still need to learn how to operate during “the new normal,” Rapaport said.

“We're going to open when we feel like we're ready. We're close, but it’s not now,” he said. “We're in the process of bringing our managers back this week and they will have to go through some extensive training, and then of course all of our barbers and stylists will need to go through an amount of training too.”

North also plans to train staff before opening later this month.

“At the salon we're going to have a run-through day where all of the stylists here come in and we all do each other's hair to practice all of these guidelines and get ourselves comfortable with it,” she said. “We want to make sure we can do it in a way that our guests feel comfortable too, because it can be a little unnerving.”

Other pitfalls preventing Headspace to open Friday include a lack of personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies. North said she ordered supplies such as masks and sanitizer back in April, but still has not received any. The salon will not be able to open until they do, she said.

During the closures, Uzuanis said he set up a fundraiser to help stylists who were not permitted to work to pay rent for his space. He said he is also offering tenants a half-month of rent relief in the hopes it can help them return, and his is making empty studio space available for others looking for a temporary place to work.

“Our hope is that we as a salon don’t have to ask anyone to pay their back rent from when they weren’t working,” Uzuanis said. “That’s all [the relief] that we were financially able to give, so that’s why we came up with this fundraiser.”

Stylists and barbers face additional challenges when deciding whether or not to return to work, including health, safety and family obligations.

“Child care is not really existent right now,” North said. “There are some expecting all of these people to go back to work but there are no daycares or schools or summer camps available right now. That's a whole other thing to manage for many parents.”

Olivia Aldridge contributed to this story.