The temptation after seeing the Facebook post was too great for J Farr, a 28-year-old living in near isolation in his Olympia, Wash., apartment. An old friend from his hometown of Yuba City, north of Sacramento, had announced he had gotten a haircut.
“I immediately started making preparations,” said Farr, who before the coronavirus outbreak would get his hair cut every few weeks and, with no clear end in sight, had considered shaving his head.
A couple of days later, Farr, who had lost his job as a paint sprayer, was in his Volkswagen Jetta listening to country music and driving more than 600 miles back home for the first time in four years. He arrived on Tuesday night, and by the next afternoon was sitting at the busy Butte House Barber Shop in Sutter County.
His barber wore a mask, but Farr didn’t. He left sporting a fade haircut with a quarter-inch taken off the top. It cost $20 plus tip.
“When I got in there it was exactly what I had hoped for,” he said. “I’ve been isolated for the last three months and that’s the first time I had that type of social interaction in that period. It’s a really good feeling to feel like there’s other people in the world who aren’t going to sit inside in fear when there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
People from across California and outside the state have been driving hours to visit beauty salons in neighboring Sutter and Yuba counties, which have opened their parlors under local guidance despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide stay-at-home order. Clients desperate for a haircut have also sought a sense of normalcy after living with little social contact for months.
Some salons worried about losing their state license haven’t opened. Many are having clients wait in their cars and, per county rules, require face coverings and limit close contact with beauty professionals to 30 minutes. Patrons often leave with wet hair.
The demand for cuts and color, both from locals and outsiders, has been overwhelming.
“I am cutting people’s hair from out of state, from San Francisco, Walnut Creek, Martinez, Fresno, Madera, Redding, Reno,” said Wes Heryford, 42, owner of the Butte House Barber Shop. “There’s not very many options and people are excited that there is someone cutting hair, so they have no problem to drive three or four hours to come see us.”
In early May, officials in Yuba and Sutter counties allowed fitness centers, restaurants, shopping malls, hair and nail salons, spas, tattoo parlors and other businesses to reopen, ahead of the state’s plans, as long as social distancing and other safety protocols were followed. Officials have argued that the counties, which together have had more than 60 COVID-19 cases, were less affected by the pandemic than spots such as Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
This past week, counties like Yuba and Sutter received permission to move further into what the governor has called Phase 2 of California’s reopening plan and open more businesses. While that phase still does not allow personal care services like salons to operate, the Yuba-Sutter bi-county health officer has held that the local order still stands and that businesses should seek private legal counsel if they do not fall within Phase 2.
The discrepancy has concerned many salon owners. The California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology has warned that it may pursue disciplinary action against the licenses of those who do not follow the state’s stay-at-home order. The board has received more than 800 complaints of businesses across the state operating in violation of the order but has taken no disciplinary action yet, a spokesman said.
Meanwhile, a federal lawsuit filed on Tuesday by the Professional Beauty Federation of California, a nonprofit that represents licensed beauty professionals, has sought to reopen the industry. It has cited the sanitation and hygiene training that stylists, cosmetologists and barbers already are required to complete.
“That’s been the hardest thing of going to work,” said Mercedes Brockman, 30, co-owner of Beyond Appearance Salon Spa in Marysville in Yuba County, who has had clients from Nevada and Oregon. “It’s not the extra sanitation, it’s the fear of someone threatening to take where I have worked ... threatening to take that away because we’re trying to provide for our families.”
Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at UC San Francisco, acknowledged the industry’s cleanliness standards but said that the key is safety around breathing. Commonly worn cotton masks, he said, do not protect fully against coronavirus transmission, and that the longer people wait, the lower the chances will be of coming across a barber or client who is infected.
“I think you’re in very close contact and even with masks it’s going to be problematic,” he said. “It’s the concern about respiratory secretions.”
That didn’t faze Mike, a 52-year-old bread deliveryman from San Bruno in San Mateo County, who drove two hours to Heryford’s salon. Mike, who declined to disclose his last name, said he typically gets his hair cut every two weeks and “a stretch would be three.”
He found the salon on Google after a co-worker told him that barbershops were open in Yuba City. Good reviews were enough assurance, and he made the 115-mile drive on his day off on Wednesday.
Heryford doesn’t require his clients or barbers to wear masks, and Mike opted not to himself. He said he wasn’t concerned about getting the virus.
“Barbers go about sanitizing their clippers, their combs, whatever tools they use,” he said. “It’s a big thing, sanitization from one customer to the next. They’re very careful about it.”
While Heryford said his shop is doing its best to practice social distancing, it’s up to his customers — just like mask use.
“I don’t force anything on anybody, it’s a free country as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “It’s their decision, it’s their life. I myself am not afraid of the virus, so I’m not wearing a mask.”
Other salons have taken numerous extra precautions. Amy Johnson, 40, the owner of Rockabetty’s Hair Parlor in Yuba City, said she needed to reopen to support her family and her stylists, independent contractors who rent out her space. She already faces a significant financial loss because she has let the stylists skip rent payments.
Anyone who enters the salon has their shoes sprayed with disinfectant and their hands sanitized. Clients and stylists sign release forms stating that the parlor is not liable if they contract the coronavirus at the facility or any time after that. A walkway drawn with tape from the salon’s entrance to its hair styling chairs promotes social distancing. Stylists use a 30-minute timer, and the business has turned away requests for color corrections and smoothening treatments that would take longer.
Johnson said she’s had “tons” of customers from across the state, including Santa Rosa, Sacramento, and Los Angeles — including many men. But she’s been debating whether to continue to allow that, worried about the health risks of serving visitors who may come from other counties.
“I’m really not sure what to do,” she said. “How am I going to say that to a person? And how am I going to enforce that?”
Some owners, like Kristi Goldby, 49, who helps run the Headlines Salon and Spa in Yuba City, have been placing out-of-towners on a waiting list. Goldby has received many calls a day from people in other counties, including one person willing to drive four hours from Monterey.
Others have barred them altogether.
“We are only taking locals. Just to keep our community safe,” said Jennifer Johnson, the owner of Image Salon and Day Spa in Yuba City, who has been taking the temperature of her clients.
Marti, a woman in her 70s who lives in Davis, drove about an hour to Rockabetty’s on Wednesday for a $40 cut. She wears her hair, naturally gray but dyed brown, in a bob.
She was hesitant at first to make the trip. Marti, who declined to provide her full name, lives alone and had only been leaving her home for trips to the grocery and drug store. But she grew less worried when she learned the region has had a low death and case count.
And, although she had been busying herself with an online eight-week meditation retreat, she also felt constrained.
“Like many people in lockdown, you have good days and days that aren’t as good, and maybe days where you don’t feel as good about yourself,” she said. “Of course, I could have kept going, but I needed a lift. It was really, really therapeutic to have someone wash my hair and give me a head massage.”
Marti said she felt safe because she chatted with her stylist through the appointment. Going to a salon, she said, is not something she would have felt comfortable doing in her own county.
“I feel a little bit guilty that I’m not waiting until my county opens up,” she said. “I like Gov. Newsom and think he has our best interests at heart, and I wanted to follow his guidelines. I would have felt guilty if I was sitting there and some authority came along and cited them.”