For multiple nights, Huy Le, who owns a salon on 16th Street, endured nightmares of going out of business. 

In the mornings, he’d scour Google in hopes of a government update permitting him to reopen. But, while some salon proprietors cheered when Mayor London Breed last week finally said the industry could move outdoors starting Tuesday, the Revamp Salon owner viewed it as “disappointing”  –  a “big nothingburger.” 

For some, the lifeline of outdoor service came too late. Though the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce did not know the number of currently closed salons, owners said many have closed permanently and several are following suit as clients leave the city. And for some hanging on, like Le, last week’s proclamation still leaves their hands tied.

To qualify for outdoor service, businesses must apply for a sidewalk permit. Eligibility requires that businesses have six feet of clear space between operations and the sidewalk, something that Le and other salon owners say is impossible for many locations. 

Instead, what Le and others want is to reopen with modifications indoors – a step Gov. Gavin Newsom  approved for all California counties, but one Breed and health experts are not yet ready to take. 

Though unhappy, Le is entertaining the idea of outdoor service and applied on Saturday. On Monday, he called the city information line 311 for a follow-up. “They said they have a roughly eight-week backlog,” Le said. 

In addition, he’ll probably have to file for a parklet application and shell out money to construct one — on the cusp of Northern California’s rainy season. If approved, he said he must add electrical outlets and a tent to work.

We had a whole bunch of people reach out to us, and we said we can’t do anything because we don’t have a permit,” he said.

The city’s Shared Spaces program, created in May, did not immediately comment on permit approval timelines. Its program description, however, notes that permit applicants can set up shop after two days, and its Shared Space tracker shows 63 percent of all businesses have had their permits processed. 

Josie Li, owner of La Boutique located downtown on 832 Sutter St., said she won’t even apply. Her location gives her hardly any space and she worries that homeless individuals in the nearby Tenderloin might affect business too. Downtown restaurant owners also fretted about the city’s ever-present needles and feces issues. 

Since Breed’s announcement, Li has enlisted other owners to draft an indoor reopening guideline that she hopes the city will approve.

The guidelines mimic those for dentists’ patients, which she says are more exposed than cosmetology clients. So far, seven other salon owners are behind her. 

I don’t blame the city or the government to tell us to do it outside. To me it was throwing us a bone,” Li said. “But it’s not a real resolution.”

At present, smoke from wildfires makes the outdoors an uninviting place to be. And, in a few months, it’ll get cold. 

“What are we going to do when winter comes along?” Li asked.  

To Huy Le on 16th Street, safe indoor reopening is already possible. He argues that Revamp Salon abides by both Cal-OSHA covid-19 workplace safety requirements and those put forth by the and Centers for Disease Control. These include temperature checks for those entering the building, gloves, and available PPE.

He also pointed to a CDC study in which two infected hairdressers in Missouri worked with 139 clients. A little less than half of the clients volunteered to be tested, and none of them contracted the disease.

“Why is it safer for someone to sit in an airplane versus us sitting for a shorter amount of time?” Le questioned. “I think the government is picking winners and losers.” 

And salon owners see themselves as being losers. The personal care industry has been closed since mid-March and while the city has offered numerous loans and grants to salons and barbers, Le received only a federal PPP loan, which is running out. 

With no revenue, Le pays rent by dipping into his savings. Last week, he protested with more than 150 gyms, barbershops, spa owners and their employees at City Hall to demand answers about reopening from local leaders. 

The merchants fear that the longer they are unable to fully reopen, the more likely that customers won’t come back. Le and Li said they received several calls from people who loved their service but could no longer afford to stay in San Francisco. Others chose to get their haircuts in more permissive counties, like San Mateo or Marin. 

Lily Rahnavard, the manager at Revamp, said the industry’s cloudy future during covid has made her rethink her career.

“I have thought about changing industries, but I love what I do,” Rahnavard said. “It’s the frustration and pushing back of our dates. It’s nonsensical.” 

She said that, luckily, her unemployment “barely covers” rent, food and utilities at her apartment in the Mission. With an immunocompromised roommate, her job search is limited, and she’s selling vintage clothes for extra cash. 

And with Revamp closed, all she can do is wait. 

“I haven’t lived like that since college,” Rahnavard said.

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