Terri, a hairstylist in the Atlanta metropolitan area in Georgia, would rather wait to go back to work amid the coronavirus pandemic. But she doesn’t have much of a choice: Hundreds of businesses across the state are being allowed to reopen on Friday, including the salon she works in.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday announced that gyms, barbershops, tattoo parlors, bowling alleys, and hair and nail salons would be allowed to resume operations at the end of the week, and by next Monday, theaters, social clubs, and restaurant dine-in services will be able to get up and running again, too. It’s putting businesses and workers across the state in an incredibly difficult spot: Go back to work and risk your health, or stay home and risk your income.

Terri, who is in her 40s and asked that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy, has decided to go back to her salon just one day a week initially, hoping to only be there on days when it’s less crowded. The state has put forth four pages of safety guidelines — including temperature checks for employees and customers, changing personal protective gear between clients, and maintaining social distancing — for reopening barber and cosmetology salons, which she finds ridiculous. And Terri is staring down the barrel on her first day: nine and a half hours of back-to-back clients, with no breaks.

There’s no way there’s enough time to comply with them, in her view — after all, hairstylists are hairstylists, not doctors — and who can find hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies right now? She would rather stay home, but she has to pay her bills. Even though, as she puts it, “Hair can wait.”

As states across the country begin to reopen their economies, Georgians are on the front lines of that experience. I spoke with Terri about what it’s like to go back to work right now, how her coworkers, boss, and clients are feeling, and what, if anything, she can do to keep herself safe. After all, it’s impossible to cut someone’s hair from 6 feet away.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

So take me through this week. When did you find out you would be going back to work, and what happened?

Monday, when the governor had his press conference. Then I got a text that evening from the salon wanting to have an in-person staff meeting the very next morning wanting to talk about opening up. I got there, and they were ready to go for Friday morning. Of course, at this point, the governor had not released the four-page requirements to reopen the salon. So they went ahead and just made plans full-speed ahead, because of course everybody wants to get back to work; everybody needs money.

How are you feeling about going back?

I don’t want to go back to work at all. The things that are required for us to go back to work aren’t even available, really, and it basically sounds like they want us to cover ourselves as if we were medically treating someone, but none of us have a medical license; we don’t know what we’re doing.

What’s your decision been here?

I chose to go back to work one day a week when there would be a total of less than 10 people in the salon. I couldn’t go back any more than one day because there was only one day where that was possible. People actually added extra hours to their shifts and extra days because they feel like they’re going to try to get caught up on their clients and their money, and my health to me is more important. I’m not going to be in there with 20 people in a 1,200-square-foot room.

What about your coworkers?

I have one coworker who has a child that is immunocompromised — she had a bone marrow transplant this past year. So she is terrified. But then she feels like if she doesn’t go back to work, she’s not going to have any money either. She’s also going back to work on a limited schedule. She would like to work more, but she’s terrified to even do that.

You’re just caught between a rock and a hard place. What do you do? We’re not going to qualify for unemployment now that the salon’s opening back up, so you feel forced to go back to work.

Some of us are scared, and then there are others that are scared but the money is more important. My boss, he has some health issues that lower his immunity, he’ll be 70 this year, and I don’t think that he would be opening the salon if he wasn’t afraid of losing everything he has at his age. It’s scary.

What does your boss say about all of this?

When he talks, I get the impression that he’s concerned with keeping the client protected, and not as concerned with actually keeping his employees protected. But, again, I think that comes from a point of fear on his part. He does care about his staff, but he also cares about his business, his livelihood.

Were you able to apply for unemployment in the interim?

I did not apply for unemployment because the salon owner was going to have to do that for us, and he applied for the small-business loan, which, as of right now, I don’t know that he’s gotten the money or not. I actually know he’s been floating our payroll out of his own pocket for the past three weeks in hopes that he was going to get those loans. So now that they’ve said we can open up, he’s trying to get the place open.

And what are your clients saying? Are they eager to come back?

For everyone that calls concerned about reopening and saying it’s a bad idea and they don’t think they should, I have another one calling asking, “How soon can you get me in,” so it’s really a mixed emotion from people.

What sort of directions are you getting in terms of how to stay safe?

Well, we didn’t get anything until they put the four-page document out, and I feel like there are some stylists that haven’t even seen them. But I don’t know.

Here’s the basic thought on it: that honestly it’s out there, they put it out there, but really there’s no enforcing whether anything’s going to be adhered to. And I promise when the salon opens, there are going to be things that are being done that — I wouldn’t feel comfortable being there, I wouldn’t feel like it would be a safe situation, as a client or an employee.

And those four pages of instructions, are they easy to comply with?

It’s really impossible to comply. The PPE [personal protective equipment], a new smock between every new client for the stylist, the cleaning, the time constraints, just the availability of the product that they’re requiring us to have. You can’t find them right now. Cleaners, hand sanitizer, you can’t find that stuff anywhere.

So there’s no way you’re going to be able to do all the things you need to keep yourself safe.

Absolutely.

What does it mean for you to go back one day a week? Do you have the option to not go back at all?

I have the option to not go back [she is paid on commission and could wait longer], but then that leaves me in a position where if nothing changes in the next six or eight weeks and I haven’t gone back in some capacity, is my entire clientele going to be gone? I don’t know. Even going back in a smaller capacity — I don’t want to lose my income. I’m in a position right now where I feel like I can make it a few more weeks, but that’s it.

At some point, will you have to start working more than one day a week?

Probably within the next four to six weeks.

You all in Georgia are facing something right now that people in a lot of states are going to be facing soon in having to go back. What would you want people to know? Or policymakers to think about as they make these decisions?

You know, if it’s not required, I think people just need to stay home until the testing is adequate, until we’re sure that the numbers are stable, until we have a little bit more information on the virus and how it spreads. Because it seems like we’re learning new things every day, new symptoms.

Until then, I wish even just [for] another few weeks, people would just stay home unless it’s something that they clearly have to get out of the home for — to get food or maybe even to get exercise, things like that.

Hair can wait. Bowling can wait. They opened up the bowling alleys, the tattoo parlors — those things can wait. They can all wait.


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