What It's Really Like to Be a Hair Salon Owner Going Back to Work Right Now

As of April 24, Alaska became one of the first states in the nation to ease its restrictions on select nonessential businesses, including hair salons. While social-distancing requirements and statewide mandates are in place to avoid the spread of the novel coronavirus, salon owners like Mandy Leslie of The Loft Hair Design in Anchorage, AK, are now tasked with the conflicting decision of when, exactly, to open up shop. This story was told to Kelsey Castañon and edited for length and clarity.

The day I go back to work, on May 11, it'll have been 50 days that I have been out of the salon. That's the longest time I've gone without doing hair in 14 years — my entire career.

My business partner and I, Whitney, waited until the last day to shut our doors. I probably would have done it a little sooner — the state-mandated order was to close by 10 p.m. on March 22 — but it was a difficult decision for us to make without someone telling us to do it, or having a set date, because it affected so many other people's lives.

Originally we had planned to reopen on May 4, a week after the news, but when we sat down and crunched the numbers, it just wasn't realistic. There was no way we'd be ready by then with all the required materials and sanitary measures. So much was unclear. There were contradictory orders between the state, the city; even the Board of Barbers and Hairdressers in Alaska had to hold a 500-person Zoom call to go over all our concerns.

As for me, I was all over the board. I was conflicted at the thought of going back to work — excited to see my clients and get back to doing what I love, but also really worried. I'm going to have to be in everyone's bubble. There's a lot of anxiety around that.

The Internal Dilemma of Getting Back to the Salon Right Now

I know all of my staff is champing at the bit to get back to work because none of us have received unemployment, so we've all been really having a hard time financially. Because we are self-employed, we also haven't seen any sort of relief yet. At this point in time, my husband and I haven't even seen our stimulus checks. It's been crazy. Never in my life have I ever had to evaluate anything as strictly as I am right now when it comes to my finances, so I'm eager to be able to provide to my household again.

I'm also a really social person. I miss being at my job, I miss being behind the chair, I miss seeing my clients. Even at this point, calling and rescheduling and getting them back on the books has been so nice to be able to just hear how everyone is doing. I can't wait to see a few familiar faces, even though it's obviously going to be different.

Right now, I have control over where I am and who I see and how safe I'm being, but then when you put it into a large population of people who are very, very close to one another, it gives me a bit of a scare.

But I'm now feeling this severe anxiety knowing that I'm going to see a lot of people, and it has been difficult for me to realize I'm going to have to give up a lot of control. Right now, I have control over where I am and who I see and how safe I'm being, but then when you put it into a large population of people who are very, very close to one another, it gives me a bit of a scare. I start thinking about my stylists — we have 10 of us, so that's 20 people in a room if they let us all work at the same time. It's nerve-racking to know that you have this huge responsibility to take care of these people the best way you can. It comes with an uneasy feeling of, "Am I doing the best that I can? Have I checked all the appropriate boxes? Have I made sure everything's in order?"

It's been a roller coaster of emotions. I've felt an overwhelming amount of stress for me and my business partner for the last month and a half — just trying to make sure that we can keep everybody afloat, and that we can help everyone out as much as we can.

The Logistics (and Price) of Reopening a Hair Salon

We were given really strict guidelines, but they also had a lot of things that contradicted themselves. There were things that, because they weren't specifically stated, it's kind of left to interpretation.


One thing in particular that concerned me was that one of the state orders originally stated that hairdressers had to wear a medical-grade face mask at minimum in order to see a client. Reading that, I felt conflicted. I have family members that are in the medical field that are having a difficult time having the proper amount of PPE to go and work with patients, and they're sometimes having to use one for the entire day because they're so limited. It was morally conflicting for me to think that I was going to have to now go seek out and get medical-grade masks, when other people who need them much more essentially than me can't even get their hands on them.

Then again, things are changing every minute. Right when we wrote up all of our mitigation plans and we were almost done with it, the state updated the mandate. Still, we're telling all the stylists, "These are what our guidelines are. They could change, but until we tell you that anything on here is verified that it's changed, this is law. You have to follow this."

There are a lot of ways an appointment will look different at the Loft, and much of it is from the state mandate. We are taking appointments only — no walk-ins — because they don't want to have a lot of people coming in and out unknowing. You'll get a prescreening. No mask equals no entry. We will not have a waiting area available; your vehicle is the new lobby. When your stylist is ready, they will call you when it's time to enter. A huge one that I've been telling every client that's called and booked is to please bring your own mask that loops behind your ears. You have to make sure it's the one that goes around the backside of your ears as opposed to tying behind your head, because we have to be able to get to your hair. The mask will be worn the duration of the service, unless directed.

We're doing 15-minute sanitization procedures in between every client and 30-minute ones every four hours. We have a limit of people that are going to be working, so our schedules have changed significantly. I want to keep clients just as informed as I am, in the best way that I can without making it really overwhelming. And for the most part, they've been pretty supportive of that, so I feel like it's been good.

The Very Real Dilemma of Snagging a Coveted Appointment

Right as Alaska officials announced that hair salons were going to be in phase one, I wanted to know who is going to be coming to see us, because I have a lot of my clients on my personal Facebook. I simply posted on there and said, "This isn't for comments, this isn't for your opinion. I just want you guys to put a thumb emoji or put a heart emoji. Thumb emoji means you're going to go out and you're going to see these businesses that are opening in phase one. Heart emoji means you're going to stay home a little bit longer."

Getty | Tobias Titz

The end tally was that nine people said that they going to absolutely go out and see all of these opening businesses, while 65 said that they were going to stay home. It was interesting, and especially because with a lot of clients calling in for appointments, it was all over the place on the reactions. The majority of them were thankful to hear that we're not opening until the 11th to take proper time to get the right amount of PPE and make sure we can be as safe as possible.

Every once in a while you'd get a couple of them, they'd go, "Seriously? I have to wait until the middle of May?" And I'm like, "Well, yeah, and unfortunately your stylist is booked the first week so you actually have to wait until the end of May [laughs]." That wasn't a fun phone call to have with some of them.

I've had a couple of my clients that are a little more immunocompromised or elderly that are like, "You know, just put me at the end of May," or, "Put me at the beginning of June instead of the first few weeks. It's not that important."

As for me, I'm already booked for the month of May, and now I'm booking in the end of June. I'm very consistent with my books, but I've had to change my schedule around — all of us had to change our schedules around in order to accommodate and follow the regulation. It's a bit overwhelming calling all of those clients and then telling them, "Hey, the appointment days that you've had for the last five years, 10 years, so on and so forth, are now actually these days, and I've got to move you around."

Trying to adjust to that has been difficult and weird, but for the most part, people seem to be OK with waiting. I've had a couple of my clients that are a little more immunocompromised or elderly that are like, "You know, just put me at the end of May," or, "Put me at the beginning of June instead of the first few weeks. It's not that important."

Still, none of them — and I have some pretty frail-immune-system clients — none of them were like, "Hey, I'm not booking for the near future." Isn't that interesting?