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Coronavirus did not spread first from a nail salon. Now when can shops reopen?

Organizers of Nail It for America strategize on reopening nail salons at Whale Spa Salon Furniture in Huntington Beach.
Organizers of Nailing It for America -- including Suzette Christian, left, Linh Nguyen and brother Tam Nguyen, along with Christie Nguyen and Ha Duong -- meet to talk about how to reopen nail salons safely at Whale Spa Salon Furniture in Huntington Beach.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

The coronavirus did not originate in California from a nail salon as Gov. Gavin Newsom said last month, according to activists who met privately with the governor’s staff earlier this week.

Angry after 80 days of a state lockdown on their businesses, nail salon owners and their supporters are aggressively pushing for the right to reopen. If restaurants are already serving diners, and if businesses such as gyms and bars are set to resume operating in a matter of days, some are asking “why not us?”

On Facebook, nail techs echo one another, saying they’ve been “waiting and waiting.”

“Families are hurting, crying, losing income daily,” said Linda Lan, a manicurist from the Bay Area. “We still have no idea when we can return.”

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Speaking to reporters on May 7, Newsom said the first person in California to contract the coronavirus through community spread caught it in a nail salon. He cited the case when asked why personal services, such as nail salons, must remain closed even as the state starts to slowly open businesses.

Newsom said transmission of the virus occurred even though most salons already had safeguards in place before the coronavirus hit, including the use of face masks and gloves.

But he did not provide details, including when the exposure occurred and where. This past Friday, state officials said that counties could resume running gyms, day camps, bars and some professional sports as early as next Friday, but specifics remain unclear. Nail salons were not among the businesses cited for reopening.

Nailing it for America, an all-volunteer initiative, released a statement on Saturday calling Newsom’s comments “nothing short of a fiasco” for business owners.

“It began with Gov. Newsom sharing inaccurate information on May 7 with devastating impacts on the beauty industry in California and with far-reaching repercussions across America,” according to the statement. The group is led by Tam Nguyen, president of Advance Beauty College in Laguna Hills and Garden Grove; Ted Nguyen, a public relations executive; and Johnny Ngo, president of Whale Spa Salon Furniture and Skyline Beauty Supply, among others.

In Tuesday’s virtual meeting, Nailing It participants said they heard staff members working for the governor say that May’s announcement about community spread was a mistake.

Both Ngo and Nguyen say they worked “around the clock” for two months to help prepare strategies to reopen more safely, which they later sent to the governor’s team. They also shared a story of a salon owner whose husband is unemployed, with both of their children home from school and who, despairing, contemplated suicide. Her business is part of an estimated 20% to 40% of nail salons that will likely be shut forever, they said.

“That acknowledgment that COVID-19’s first case of community spread occurred earlier and not in a nail salon is welcomed news,” their statement said. “We demand that the governor and his office take the necessary steps to restore trust and confidence among the general public and our community in particular. Our own reservoir of patience is running exceedingly low as we continually seek more transparency and more meaningful engagement from the Newsom administration.”

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Jesse Melgar, Newsom’s press secretary, told the Times in an email Monday that the administration “continues to engage with stakeholders in the nail salon industry to gather feedback and participate in constructive dialogue about reopening -- with a focus on public health and safety. We remain committed to keeping the lines of communication open as we look to modify our Stay at Home order.”

Across the Golden State, there are 11,000 nail salons, with 80% owned by Vietnamese Americans. It’s also home to more than 110,000 licensed manicurists and 300,000 cosmetologists — who can also do nails, according to Lisa Fu, executive director of the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative.

“The heartbreaking things we are hearing now that they’ve lost their source of income is just incredible,” she said, leading her group to form an emergency fund to help salon employees.

Fu, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said her group has been working with the governor’s staff, submitting suggested guidelines in hopes of getting the go-ahead “whenever they are ready. I completely understand there’s economic pressure vs. pressure to stay safe.”

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Her grassroots group focuses on health, environmental and social issues faced by a mainly female immigrant and refugee work force. It partnered with the UCLA Labor Center to publish Nail Files, a 2018 report of salon workers and the industry around the U.S., showing that 78% of nail salon employees are low-wage workers — more than double the national rate of 33% for all industries.

In May, Newsom had said he meant no harm with his remarks, describing the nail salon industry as “noble” and as an “exit point out of poverty.”

“I have deep reverence for those entrepreneurs and people that put everything on the line. I talk about that often,” he added, later saying state safety guidelines for reopening nail salons would be issued Friday, though business owners say they haven’t seen them.

State Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco), who chairs California’s Asian and Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus and who joined the meeting, said he’s certain guidelines will be issued “soon. And when they said soon, I take them at face value. The challenge for so many small business owners who could not apply or receive [government] loans is the language — lacking English, they were at a disadvantage. I think this administration will give real attention to their struggles based on their feedback.”

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Some stakeholders invited to the meeting to talk about impacts of COVID-19 on the nails industry say Newsom may have been given false information by staff, but that damage has already been done.

“Let’s focus on what we can do to move forward,” said Diedre Thu-Ha Nguyen, a Garden Grove council member whose mother toiled in a nail salon for about 20 years and who joined the recent private meeting with Newsom’s staff. “I will try to bring people back to the table so we can expedite the salons reopening.”


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