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Salon owners call for ‘soft opening’ from shutdown

Says it is possible to balance client safety with being able to keep doors open and businesses operating

As communities continue to reel from the financial drain caused by Wisconsin’s Safer At Home order, hair salons and barber shops find themselves in a volatile situation after being deemed non-essential, resulting in the shut down of all cosmetology shops, and are having a difficult time drudging through the process of keeping their businesses afloat while receiving little help from the government.

Angie Apfelbeck, owner of Mirage Hair Design & Oasis Spa, closed her doors at 5 p.m. on March 20 when the order came to close all cosmetology businesses, and has been left without a source of income since.

“The Small Business Administration (SBA) loans that were promised never came. We’ve had to take personal loans out to keep our utilities running. The SBA originally said $10,000 and up to $25,000 in loans, but we’ve received nothing,” Apfelbeck said.

“It forced all of us to be unemployed,” concurred owner of Reflections Hair Designs and Renewal Day Spa Suzy Jensen, who had to shut up shop as well.

The surge of unemployment due to business closures across America has stunted people’s ability to gain access to state funds, as many call centers are overburdened with applications. Both Apfelbeck’s and Jensen’s employees were able to start collecting unemployment, but it’s been a very slow process.

“One of my employees was told they had to call to verify an item, and she was trying to verify it for about three weeks. The line would be busy, she’d get hung-up on,” said Apfelbeck. “I think eventually they got that squared away, and it sounds like she should now finally be able to collect.”

Unlike their employees, neither Jensen nor Apfelbeck have been able to get unemployment yet. Since they are self-employed owners of small businesses, they’re considered ineligible for normal unemployment. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, initiated April 21, aims to provide access to unemployment funds for those who don’t fall under the normal criteria of unemployment such as Jensen and Apfelbeck. The maximum weekly benefit rate that applicants can receive from the new program is $370, and the minimum rate is $163.

With hair salons across the state finding themselves in the same hot water as Mirage and Reflections, a petition directed at Gov. Evers to slacken business closures and allow hair salons to have “soft” openings has been circulating online.

The call is to permit salons to have a single customer with a single stylist in their parlor at a time, with all appointments made via telephone. Proponents of the petition, including Apfelbeck, say that while it wouldn’t be a huge influx of money for small businesses, it’d be better than their current situation of having no income whatsoever.

“Even with the soft opening, I would only take in about 15% of what I would normally gross in a month,” said Apfelbeck. “So really all I would be working for is utilities, and the regular bills I have on a monthly basis.”

Despite the appeal to allow owners to open their doors again, Apfelbeck says that, so far, the petition has “fallen on deaf ears.”

Even though the petition has garnered lack of attention from government officials, people are still advocating for it. Advocates argue that hair dressing can be done safely, and soft openings wouldn’t perpetuate an increase of the spread of COVID-19.

Apfelbeck said the sanitation standards are already high in hair salons, and that she feels hair dressers can be responsible and stay safe while working with a customer.

“Our industry has always had to do a lot of disinfecting and sanitizing,” she explained. “We are under pretty stringent rules from the state that say combs and brushes have to be disinfected, our utensils have to be disinfected, that our salons have to be disinfected on a regular basis.”

She was open to the idea of increased safety measures such as wearing personal protective equipment while working, saying they already have rubber gloves in stock, and wearing masks could be an option too.

“For us to make ‘adjustments’ like they want, it’s not really that big of an adjustment, because we already do a lot. And if we have to do a couple more things? Not a big deal.”

It’s a tempestuously debated item right now, as to whether the economic toll many are facing is worth such a domineering shutdown, and as to whether the government is infringing on store owners’ rights by not allowing them to operate without giving them compensation.

“Is this worth economic death to so many ‘nonessential’ businesses? How long are we expected to hold on without any kind of help from the government?” Apfelbeck asked. “These small business loans were supposed to be available in March, and we’re cruising towards the end of April.”

Aside from the economic downsides of the shutdown, additional medical precautions must be taken by any open business and is essential to keeping their workers and customers safe.

“It’s a hard situation,” said Jensen. “You want the health of your clients and yourself. There’s so many precautions you’d have to take. Like hospitals, they take your temperature, they wear equipment.”

Jensen heeded warnings and took action before the government required her to, initially opting to take a more cautionary approach to the predicament before being shutdown completely: “We were taking proper precautions as far as whether our clients were in good health, and not letting anyone else in, just the person we were doing the service on.”

Regulation and licensing officials have even threatened to revoke hair salons’ licenses if they attempt to operate.

“They could take our establishment license away, fine us, maybe even jail us, yet no SBA loans and no help from the federal government,” said Apfelbeck. “They’re really backing us into a corner, and pretty soon we’re going to start pushing back.”

Petitioners feel that officials shouldn’t have the authority to make such harsh decisions, and that business owners and customers should be able to have a mutual agreement to conduct business without the involvement of the government.

“If you want to come here and get a haircut, and I’m willing to give you a haircut, then that should be our choice. If you or I get sick, we get sick. The whole thing doesn’t make a bit of sense to me,” Apfelbeck said, adding that she believes those who are at risk such as autoimmune deficient people likely wouldn’t go to a hair salon anyways, and that too many healthy people are being disproportionately affected. Evers’ extension of the Safer At Home order to May 26 didn’t breed any reassurance amongst small business owners, who are looking with growing concern towards a hazy future.

“If they keep extending the order, where will that leave us? We have to abide by their rules and basically let them do whatever they want,” Apfelbeck said. “Eventually, financially, I would have to let [my business] go... I don’t think businesses, especially small ‘nonessential’ businesses, are being treated fairly.”

The discussion of whether to allow hair salons to open in a limited capacity continues, and some are left unsure as to what the best course of action is to take. Jensen wants to maintain an extra safe environment, but recognizes small businesses’ necessity to open.

“It’s hard to say whether the push to reopen salons is good or bad,” said Jensen. “Obviously we all want to be open. But, we want to be safe too... Since March 20, we’ve been closed and the business hasn’t taken in any money. I think we’ll be okay in the long run, it’s just a very scary time with all of us.”

Others, such as the petition supporters, take a more defiant stand, with Apfelbeck believing that it’s a businesses right to open whether the government likes it or not.

“I want everyone to be safe. But I also believe, since there are zero [confirmed] cases in Taylor County, that this is overkill,” she said. “If people want to be able to choose to come into a business, and that business choses to be open providing they take proper precautions, I can’t understand why they wouldn’t allow us to be open.”