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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Annika Hom

Annika Hom is our inequality reporter through our partnership with Report for America. Annika was born and raised in the Bay Area. She previously interned at SF Weekly and the Boston Globe where she focused...

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11 Comments

  1. I went to the dentist and felt completely safe given all of the fancy new equipment they invested in due to the pandemic, and they were practically wearing hazmat suits, face shields and masks, you name it. So why can’t a hair salon do something similar? When I get a haircut, I can keep my mask on which is one step better than at the dentist. And mostly, my back is to the stylist – we’re not even facing each other? I’m just getting really worried for my friends who haven’t been able to work since March. Some are even talking about giving up and moving away when the unemployment runs out.

  2. The City is playing favorites. Trust the small business owners to follow safety protocol. I would trust them before getting on a plane. Small business owners need to survive. Why would they do anything to harm their clients or themselves if their goal is to survive?

  3. SF really is being unfair to salons. Counties all around SF have worse transmission rates but have salons open. How does that make any sense? Customers are just going to drive to the suburbs to get a hair cut, so the risk of transmission is not reduced. And actually it’s worse if those customers are taking public transport versus walking somewhere in the neighborhood. (Just FYI, I cut my own hair so I don’t have skin in this fight, but it’s clearly unfair.)

    Mayor Breed: Come up with rules and ENFORE THEM! This city is great at coming up with rules but there is no enforcement. I stopped shopping at Grocery Outlet on S Van Ness months ago because the customers and employees were not wearing masks. I know it’s hard to enforce rules with customers, but I saw multiple employees stocking shelves with masks around their chins and even what looked like a manager with a mask covering their mouth but not their nose. I will never shop there again. Stop making so many rules. Enforce the ones we make! I’m confident if you came up with rules for salons and enforced them, it would be safe.

    1. “Counties all around SF have worse transmission rates but have salons open.”
      It certainly seems that having stricter rules has helped keep our COVD rates low in the Bay Area. That seems like a good thing.

      1. did it ever occur to you that their higher infection rates are partly BECAUSE the opened their salons too soon?

  4. Just do a home visit for individuals, have masks on with good air flow(by the window), and do simple cuts instead. Or take it somewhere more open.

    The government in general have been far too slow and ineffective to the covid response.
    It’s evident: 5month into the pandemic, and still unable to get everyone to wear masks, or figure out how to do effective damage control for businesses, landlords, etc.

    Governments are good at bureaucracy, slowing progress, but not innovations, appropriate and realistic measures that works with current problems.

    Get it together San Francisco! And don’t wait for help, but rather; do your own research, and push for solutions that you come up with yourselves.

  5. Minimum income, rent and mortgage complete freeze would’ve completely got rid of the fear that many businesses, landlords and tenants face. Unfortunately the government, that’s meant to govern or lead the country just isn’t doing that. Instead they waste time stiring up conflicts, misguiding people of what’s needed to be done to contain covid-19, and still catering to the rich / profit before human lives model of thinking.

  6. No need to follow the rules as long as the client is Nancy Pelosi. No problem blowing around the virus indoors without a mask.

  7. Nancy Pelosi just got a haircut despite arguing that Trump was immoral and dangerous for allowing people not to wear masks in the White House. She got special privileges. Typical. Don’t fire bad teachers, respect teachers, eliminate algebra in 8th grade as it’s racist, eliminate suspensions, while Pelosi sends all her kids and grandkids to private schools. Now she gets a haircut while making everyone else go to Oakland or go outside. What a hypocrite.

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