Bootleg barbershops and hair salons thrive as coronavirus stay-at-home orders persist in some states

Carmelle Harris saw the man standing at the open front door of her house.

“Are you here for the haircut?’’ she asked.

He was, and so Harris, wearing an N95 face mask, handed sanitary wipes to the man, and led him to the makeshift barber’s chair in the living room.

Soft music played in the background as a breeze kicked up and wind chimes jingled. The smell of citrus-scented candles and incense co-mingled as the customer, John Batinovich of Hollywood, settled into the barber’s chair.

“You’ve got a great set up here,’’ he said.

It’s also illegal – and during the coronavirus pandemic, the hair industry is drawing legal scrutiny across the country.

  • In Texas, Shelley Luther was arrested after she defied an order to close her salon during the COVID-19 outbreak. She spent two days in jail and was fined $7,000.
  • In Michigan, Karl Manke’s professional and business licenses were suspended after he refused to close his barbershop.  Manke, 77, was charged with two criminal misdemeanors for defying the governor’s stay-at-home orders.
  • In California, the state has threatened disciplinary action against open salons and said it was investigating 651 related complaints. Los Angeles has filed criminal complaints against four hair salons and one barbershop — along with 55 other businesses — that were open in violation of the city’s Safer at Home orders, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer said last week.
  • Also last week, the Ulster County Department of Health and Mental Health in New York announced that a barber had tested positive for COVID-19 after cutting hair after the state put shutdown orders in place.

The number of hairstylists setting up shop at home or coloring and cutting hair at customers’ homes is on the rise as stay-at-home orders in states like California have stretched beyond eight weeks, more than a dozen hair stylists and industry experts told USA TODAY.

Financial pressure is cited as the chief reason hairstylists like Harris, of Compton, California have put their cosmetology licenses at risk. Two weeks ago, Harris decided she had little choice.

“Do I take a chance and get turned into a criminal because I decided to work and pay my bills on time?’’ said Harris, 38. “Or do I just sit and watch my bills pile up, so when the economy does open up, I’m thousands and thousands of dollars in debt?’’

There is no legal ambiguity in the state.

“California law requires that all services be performed in a licensed establishment,’’ Cheri Gyuro, public information officer for the California Department of Consumer Affairs, told USA TODAY. Similar laws are in effect in every other state, said Steve Sleeper, executive director of the Professional Beauty Association.

But the hairstylists and barbers are fighting to regain legal work opportunities during the pandemic.

Last week, the Center for American Liberty filed a federal lawsuit against California Gov. Gavin Newsom on behalf of the Professional Beauty Federation of California. It was an attempt to get hair salons reopened statewide.

5,000 miles away, stylists are worried

In Connecticut, salon owner Odete DaSilva said she is among thousands of hairstylists and salon owners urging Gov. Ned Lamont to push back the May 20 date when salons and barbershops will be allowed to reopen. She said they fear the risks of getting infected with COVID-19 are too high to go back to work and allowing them to do so would end their ability to collect unemployment benefits.

“It’s such a divisive issue, right?’’ said Steve Sleeper, executive director of the Professional Beauty Association. “Our members are the same way that the rest of the country plays out. Half are thinking, ‘Hey, it’s too soon, let’s wait and make things safe.’ And the other half is, ‘Let’s go-go-go-go.’”

The sense of urgency led one Southern California hairdresser to create in her garage a makeshift salon, complete with a hood dryer and a shampoo bowl. She spoke on the condition of anonymity because she said her cosmetology license could be revoked, but allowed USA TODAY to take photos.

A covert salon in Southern California.
A covert salon in Southern California.

Upon arrival, the hairdresser said, her clients have been instructed to text her rather than ring the doorbell, to keep her two dogs from barking and to eliminate unnecessary noise that might draw attention from neighbors.

The choice to defy or abide by state orders that govern the hair industry has become part of pandemic politics.

After Luther was released from a Dallas jail, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz got a haircut at her Salon à la Mode. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced that he would pay Luther’s $7,000 fine, although the salon owner now has ample money to handle it.

She received more than $500,000 from a GoFundMe campaign that was started a day before she reopened her salon, and recently, Luther started a nonprofit called “Courage to Stand.’’

On May 14, Luther told USA TODAY that she was driving from to Michigan to offer support for Manke, the barber who is facing jail time after refusing to close his barbershop in Owosso, a town of about 15,000.

“My attorneys have been in touch with his attorneys,’’ said Luther, 46. “Even if it’s just showing my face, I need to go out there and support this man.

“Right now, I want to speak with actions and make sure everybody in the United States realizes that we’re getting our rights and freedoms taken away, and we need to take them back immediately.’’

Manke did not reply to interview requests.

‘Everything is super clean’

In an interview at the small stucco house where she lives with two roommates, Harris did not speak about politics. But she spoke intently about health and safety, saying she recently completed two online courses and received COVID-19 certification from Barbicide, a company that sells products designed to clean and disinfect salons.

One of Harris’s roommates was helping her disinfect between customers.

“Everything is super clean,’’ Harris said of her makeshift salon.

But it’s unlikely the California State Board of Barbering and Cosmetology will be impressed, based on warning it issued May 1 by social media.

“The Board urges licensees to follow the stay at home orders,’’ the post read. “If businesses continue to put public health and safety at risk by not following the guidance provided, and if circumstances warrant it, the Board may pursue disciplinary action against their license. This will not be taken lightly.’’

But last week, at the Sassoon Salon in Beverly Hills, the front door was open and a hairstylist was cutting a man’s hair. Neither were wearing a face mask. Susie Mutch, the global marketing director for Sassoon, did not respond to a request for comment.

In Brookhaven, Mississippi, Dedra Edwards said she’s worried for hairstylists and barbers going back to work after her brother Eugene, a longtime barber, died of COVID-19 in April at the age of 46.

Dedra Edwards said her family thinks 46-year-old Eugene Edwards was infected with COVID-19 during a hair show in Jackson, Mississippi on March 15. Eugene Edwards was not wearing a face mask because the hair show was held before the state-at-home order was imposed, according to Dedra Edwards.

She said safety should be paramount as salons and barbershops reopen.

“I know they’re using masks,’’ Dedra Edwards said. “But you don’t know the client you’re working with, and you can carry COVID-19 and not have any symptoms.’’

Safety was part of the motivation when the Center for American Liberty filed the lawsuit on behalf of the PBFC, said attorney Fred Jones, counsel for the group representing the beauty and barbering industry.

“Tell me, what’s safer,” Jones said, “having (hairstylists and barbers) go from one kitchen to the next kitchen? Or having all of those ladies and men come into the controlled environment of the salon, where they maintain cross-contamination controls?”

After entering Harris’ home, Batinovich explained that he’d seen her on Craigslist, where a slew of hairstylists are advertising their services. The demand is high, several hairstylists told USA TODAY, and Harris said she averages between five and 10 customers per day.

She is charging $20 a haircut and making about as much as she does when she’s working at a Floyd’s 99 Barbershop.

Working with an electric razor, small comb and scissors, Harris needed about 20 minutes to complete Batinovich’s haircut.

“You look good,’’ she said.

Batinovich smiled.

“I feel good,’’ he said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: Barbers and hair stylists defy stay at home orders


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