‘I had to do something’: Black barbers and stylists go underground as L.A. salons stay shut
Dondae Settles felt he had no other choice.
State and local officials had forced him to shutter his South Los Angeles barbershop to slow the spread of the coronavirus. With rent on his commercial spaces due on the first of the month, the 44-year-old said he needed to find a way to bring in money.
So under cover of night in late March, Settles and a friend hauled a heavy salon chair up two flights of stairs, squeezed it through a narrow walkway and installed it behind a plastic tarp among the printing equipment in his second business, a custom T-shirt shop. Now, he secretly cuts hair there twice a week.
“Man, my pockets were touching,” Settles said, describing his empty wallet as he shaped up Mychael Jamal. “I had to do something.”
On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that counties that met certain guidelines would be allowed to reopen hair salons and barbershops — with some restrictions. Barbers and hair stylists in South L.A. thought political leaders had heard their pleas.
Then they learned that hair shops in Los Angeles County would remain closed.
The uncertainty has left many hair stylists from Santa Monica to Diamond Bar hanging in the balance and unsure of their futures.
In black communities, barbershops and salons are cultural institutions where people come together for community support, political organizing and, in recent years, even for health services. In addition to threatening the livelihoods of small-business owners, the coronavirus pandemic has robbed black communities of sacred spaces, said Jahmil Lacey, founder of TRAPMedicine, a South L.A.-based nonprofit that trains black barbers to address health issues and run workshops.
“Historically, barbershops have been spaces where black men go to release, to be in community with other black men, to get their hair cut, to look good and feel good,” Lacey said. “When you disconnect that, it’s another form of self-care that we don’t have access to.”
L.A. is prosecuting more than 70 businesses so far for allegedly flouting COVID-19 rules. The group includes pet groomers, salons and smoke shops.
Across South L.A., buildings that house barbershops and beauty shops sit dark. Bars cover the windows of some. Signs are posted on the doors of others announcing a permanent closure.
A coalition of black salon-owners and hair stylists petitioned state and local officials last week, asking for permission to return to work. They promised to conduct temperature checks, require social distancing and masks, and submit to additional inspections.
But L.A. County, which accounts for more than half of the state’s reported coronavirus-related deaths, was one of 11 counties that failed to meet Newsom’s requirements for reopening.
The news was another blow to L.A. hair stylists, including those in South L.A., who say the longer the stay-at-orders remain in place, the deeper in debt they go.
Settles, who accepts enough clients to keep the lights on and pay his bills at home, said he will decide soon if he will close his barbershop and T-shirt store. He doesn’t want the $2,200 monthly rent for the commercial spaces to pile up for months. Lately, he’s been considering transporting cars across the country to make money, a job that will take him away from his family.
Some stylists complain that government aid to help small businesses has been slow to arrive. Others say the structure of the hair-grooming business has prevented them from qualifying for the federal Paycheck Protection Program under the CARES Act.
“Many African-American-owned salons didn’t qualify for the PPP loan because they rent booths to their stylists and barbers, and didn’t have the payroll numbers to give banks to qualify,” South L.A. community activist Najee Ali wrote in a letter sent to elected officials.
Ali said many of the businesses that have already been allowed to reopen, including flower shops and bookstores, had well-positioned backers lobbying for them. Black barbers and hair stylists worried that they lacked such influence.
In fact, one interest group has been advocating on behalf of the beauty industry. Earlier this month, the Professional Beauty Federation of California, a nonprofit that represents licensed beauty professionals, filed a federal lawsuit against Newsom urging him to reopen the industry. The lawsuit argues that stylists, cosmetologists and barbers already are required to complete sanitation and hygiene training.
Local leaders say that businesses in South L.A. tend to be hit harder during economic downturns. In the hair care industry here, stylists are less likely to own the building or business where they work and often earn just enough to get by. Ali said he spoke to dozens of barbers and cosmetologists during the past month whose savings are now depleted.
“When Los Angeles catches a cold, black Los Angeles catches pneumonia,” he wrote in the letter.
There is fear that the dire financial circumstances of some black stylists will push even more of the industry underground, potentially spreading the coronavirus in a community that is already getting sick and dying from it at disproportionate rates.
Some stylists say the money is not worth the risk of contracting COVID-19.
“Yes, we need to work,” Lynette Baker, who has owned a salon in Lancaster for two decades, wrote on social media. “It’s not safe right now. People have to be right in your face, especially my barbers.”
But others say it is a risk worth taking. They are inviting clients into their homes and shuttered businesses, like Settles, making house calls and setting up shop in even more clandestine places.
In March, after Mayor Eric Garcetti deemed hair salons across Los Angeles nonessential businesses and ordered them to close, Diamond Rose and her two daughters initially covered the windows of their Mid-City hair salon and quietly continued accepting clients. Then a neighbor reported them to authorities.
Police cited the salon’s owner, Rose’s 36-year-old daughter Tia, giving her a ticket to appear in court in August on a misdemeanor charge punishable by six months in jail, $1,000 fine or both. Hers is among 60 businesses being prosecuted by City Atty. Mike Feuer for violating the city’s closure orders.
“They act like we’re selling drugs or something,” Diamond Rose, 60, said. “What are you supposed to do? If that’s your only source of income, how do you eat?”
They applied for a small-business loan and “received a nice little letter, but no money,” she said.
So the three women packed up their hair tools and took their hair braiding business on the road. They began booking short-term rentals on the weekends, moving from one rental home to the next to avoid detection. They know what they are doing is considered wrong in the eyes of local law enforcement. But the mother-daughters team say they are just trying to earn a living.
“Despite the pressure of not being able to work [legally], now I have the pressure of a criminal case filed against me for trying to survive,” said Tia Rose, who owns Studio 5526, the famous salon where Prince used to get his hair done. “I still have to feed my children.”
Tia Rose still owes $5,200 in May rent for the salon, and the payment for June is due in a few days.
Feuer said his office has made roughly 1,800 phone calls in response to complaints about business owners defying stay-at home orders. The Los Angeles Police Department has issued warrants to those whose businesses were reported a second time.
“I’m extremely empathetic with local businesses, including in the beauty industry, who need to get up and running as fast as possible,” Feuer said. “But everybody’s health and safety depends on us adhering to what our public health experts tell us is required and that’s embedded in the safer at home order.”
The Roses make sure they and their clients cover their faces and ask everybody to spray themselves head-to-toe with disinfectant before service.
In Settles’ makeshift barbershop, neither he nor his customers wear a mask. It’s hard to breathe while wearing one, he said. And he can’t line up clients’ beards or shape their hairlines with a mask looped around the ears and stretched across their faces, Settles said.
His best protection, he said, is a strict cleaning routine. He takes only a few clients, and he questions all of them.
The day Settles cut Jamal’s hair, his client rubbed his hand over his fresh waves and checked himself out in the mirror.
“I’m back in the game, boy,” Jamal exclaimed as Settles stepped back and admired his work.
Jamal climbed out of the chair, ready for a modeling gig. Settles grabbed a tub of disinfecting wipes and began cleaning his chair for his next client.