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Post-coronavirus lockdown, customers welcome back a Fullerton nail salon, precautions and all

Crystal Trang Luong wears gloves, a face shield and mask at her in Fullerton
Crystal Trang Luong, wearing gloves, a face shield and mask, bought the salon in Fullerton only five months before the coronavirus caused her to shut down.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

As soon as the salon doors opened, customers with ragged, discolored nails streamed in Friday, heading for the socially distanced chairs.

But first, Christina Dinh stepped up to take their temperatures. Inside the narrow, spotless Captivate Nail & Spa, she asked them to sign a form affirming the risks of a COVID-19 outbreak and that they did not show symptoms — agreeing to release the Fullerton shop from legal claim in case of infection. Then she directed each person to wash her hands.

Behind Dinh, her mother, owner Crystal Trang Luong, scrubbed the magenta-flecked toes of a junior accountant who said she was grateful to have “presentable feet,” just in time to ease into leather summer sandals.

Friday unfolded as a reopening for nail salons, nearly 100 days after the businesses shut down, eventually getting the go-ahead from California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Many resumed operations with face shields, foot shields, table shields and all manner of set-up, training and safeguards now required to keep manicurists and clients as protected as possible under guidelines from the state and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Melissa Alatorre gets her temperature checked by Christine Dinh.
Melissa Alatorre, left, gets her temperature checked by Christine Dinh and signs a release before getting her nails done.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“Whatever they require is what we do. I’m not thinking so much about cost — though, yes, there’s three months of back rent waiting to be paid and not having the income to cover it,” Luong, 48, said. “I’m thinking mainly about safety. If we can’t offer it, how will we all survive?”

Just five months after Luong bought the salon, scrimping to save and borrowing money from her sister-in-law, the surge of the novel coronavirus forced her to shut down on March 17. Stuck at home, she obsessively followed the news, searching for clues for when her industry could reopen.

She said it saddened her to hear that community spread of the virus originated from a nail salon, as Newsom announced in May. By June, his staff had said that was a mistake, promising to help push for reopening as part of Phase 3, when state officials allowed personal services and its employees to return to work. Friday was the day for gyms, massage therapists and nail salons, with California home to 11,000 such salons, 80% owned by Vietnamese Americans.

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“You know, I’m ecstatic” salons are back. “I can’t wait to tell my mom,” said Joanne Bockian, 70, who’s been coming to Captivate once a month. She made an appointment to surprise her mother who turns 96 in July, who “gets such a treat out of our mani-pedis,” said the San Gabriel Valley resident who visits her parent in Fullerton weekly.

“They’re very good at pampering here and they have nice touches, talking softly and helping her to put her shoes back on,” said Bockian, choosing a slot when it’s not as crowded to prioritize the health of the elderly.

Manicurist David Ngo, wearing gloves, works on the nails of a client on the first day of reopening.
Manicurist David Ngo, wearing gloves, works on the nails of a client on the first day of reopening at Captivate Nail & Spa in Fullerton.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

As Dinh sanitized a spa chair, a woman munching on an apple appeared, asking for an impromptu manicure. She did not need to wear a mask or sign any forms, she said, because she “works for the government and they don’t require us to do that, either.”

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“I’m so sorry, Miss, we cannot provide you service,” Dinh, 22, responded. The stranger left, returning five minutes later, huffing behind a mask. The phone kept ringing, clients were constantly booking.

“You interact with all types of personalities,” said Dinh, Luong’s eldest child, a nursing student. Growing up, she watched her mom accept short-term jobs doing nails in Arizona and North Carolina to support the family. Her machinist dad recently signed up for shifts every day to bring in income as an essential worker.

Her mother and father came from Vietnam’s central highlands of Da Lat, and after immigrating to the U.S. in their 20s, they discovered they were neighbors in Orange County. Luong’s family was sharing a bar of soap for personal grooming, her daughter recalled, “until my dad introduced them to shampoo and conditioner. They didn’t even know what that was,” Dinh said. “And now, she’s running her own business.”

Sergio Martinez, an Auto Zone sales manager, and his wife, Diana, are regular customers. They, too, alluded to the dedication of the nail techs and the comforting air of the salon, saying, “We are welcomed sincerely, like family.”

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“We need to give higher tips, all that time they were out of work,” said Martinez, 34, of Anaheim. As he settled back for his favorite treatment, a $26 deluxe pedicure complete with callous removal, sea salt treatment and massage, he noted: “It’s not the same when you have to clean your own toes. They get right in there.”

Kathy Ong, the employee working with his feet and a five-year nails veteran, said she “counted the days to return to the salon because staying at home means staying in an economic bind. You have few choices.”

A new study released by the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, partnering with the UCLA Labor Center, revealed that among more than 700 salon employees and owners surveyed during COVID-19, only 6% of owners were able to keep their workers on payroll. More than 90% of workers applied for unemployment benefits, and almost half needed support, including translation, to complete their applications.

Brittney Robertson wears her face mask while getting her nails done.
Diana Martinez gets her nails done, she’s a loyal customer who stops by every three week. The Anaheim resident said she “felt awful” for employees for “being out of work for so long. I’m so happy to see them.”
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
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Brittney Robertson, lounging on a spa chair as Ong now turned to scrape her cuticles, sympathized with the workers’ plight. “Society is suffering, which is why doing your nails is a welcomed break,” she said, flexing her left leg, graced with an Alice in Wonderland tattoo. She and Dinh stayed connected as she awaited salon services.

“We were constantly messaging over their Instagram: ‘How many more days?’ ” said the Kaiser nursing assistant, 29, recalling their exchanges. “Once you’re established with ... people, you don’t want to go anywhere else.”


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