At Salon DaVinci in Midtown Anchorage this week, owner Jen Bersch was busy making changes to prepare to welcome back customers.
She took down a sign encouraging walk-in clients. She removed the chairs from the waiting area. She bought hand sanitizer in bulk.
“I want to make sure that I do this right,” she said. “You don’t get to go back and change once you’ve done something wrong and you’ve infected yourself or someone else.”
Across the city, and the state, salon owners like Bersch are figuring out when and how to safely reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. They’re part of the first wave of Alaska businesses given the go-ahead to restart — with limitations — since the virus-related closures were put into place about a month ago.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced Tuesday that the salons could open as soon as Friday, while Mayor Ethan Berkowitz has pushed the earliest start date to Monday for the state’s largest city.
In some ways, Bersch said, it’s exciting and she looks forward to seeing her clients again. But it’s also stressful and a little bit scary. There are a lot of unknowns. Bersch said she plans to take it slow. The risks are high. While cutting or dying hair, it’s impossible for the stylist and client to stay at least 6 feet apart.
“To be honest, personally, I don’t really want to be the guinea pig of the first phase,” Bersch said. “I don’t want to rush. I want to make sure that we take all the steps.”
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It’s a complicated calculus as salon owners weigh demand, finances, health risks, rent and the availability of supplies when deciding what business looks like in the time of the coronavirus. There’s also the competition to consider, said Brian Ivy, the owner of Salon Ivy in Anchorage.
“If we’re not open for our clients, there will be someone that is and the client may go there,” he said. “At this point, you know, that’s money that we need. So we’ve been kind of involuntarily forced into a position where we have to open if we want to stay open.”
Ivy said he plans to partially reopen his salon as soon as he can. It’s not something he expected to do this early. Ivy, Bersch and other salon owners interviewed this week said Dunleavy’s announcement caught them off guard.
“It was pretty abrupt,” Ivy said. “And it was a bit of a surprise to a lot of us.”
Lorna Cochran, the owner of Fringe Hair Design in downtown Anchorage, said she worries the timeline to reopen is too short. She thought the governor and mayor would have given businesses more notice to rev up and prepare to operate during the pandemic.
“It just happened really quickly and it felt like a pie in the face,” she said. “And then it’s sort of a mad scramble to get all of us coordinated and our ducks in a row.”
The absence of immediate guidelines tangled planning even more, and led to confusion, she said.
The state didn’t release its new requirements for hair salons and other personal care businesses until Wednesday. Even then, it said the businesses needed surgical masks to reopen, sending some salon owners rushing to the Internet to search for the hard-to-find supplies. Then, on Thursday, the state said it was an error and should have read “fabric-face coverings.”
Berkowitz is expected to release his requirements for the municipality on Friday, and the state Board of Barbers and Hairdressers is also meeting to discuss its guidance.
“Sending out different mandates has been entirely confusing for everybody,” said Kari Mystrom, owner of Salon Poppy in Anchorage.
As she waits for more guidance, Mystrom is formulating plans to put new measures in place to keep workers and clients safe. So are Bersch, Cochran and Ivy.
That includes having clients wait in their cars, instead of inside, and allowing just a few people in the salon at a time.
“It’s just this sort of jigsaw puzzle of scheduling people and keeping that 6 feet,” Bersch said. She said the salon has at least 200 people on a waiting list to get an appointment.
Salon owners also said they’ll increase cleanings even more, adding that they’re already trained to follow a high-degree of sanitation. The state says there must be at least 6 feet between “customer-employee pairs,” and limits the maximum number of people in a shop to 10.
“I have no fear for any of the clients or for any of my staff, otherwise I wouldn’t open,” Ivy said.
Hair stylists will change their aprons between each client and everyone will wear masks.
“I feel like when people walk into our salon we are going to look like we are doctors and nurses,” Mystrom said, “but really we are psychologists and hairdressers.”
Over the past few weeks, Cochran has spent time sewing cloth masks for hair stylists and clients, preparing to run her business in a new way.
“It’s definitely a mix of emotions,” she said.
Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at firstname.lastname@example.org or 907-550-8447.