Salons may reopen -- but with limited capacity
Ernesto Cabello, owner of Ernesto's Hair Salon, said the MUNI red carpet lanes have ruined his business. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

Salon owner Erik Webb has a lot to do in a very short time. 

Just like the others in the industry, his phone has blown up with calls from staff, former clients, and well, everyone, since the mayor on Thursday suddenly announced indoor reopening — with “limited capacity” — for a variety of industries on Sept. 14. This includes hair and nail salons, tattoo parlors, massage services, hotels, places of worship, political activities, and gym and fitness centers.

Though this is certainly welcome news for businesses that have been shuttered since March, many owners were caught by surprise and left with lingering questions. The most glaring one for health advocates and business owners alike: what does “limited capacity” mean?

According to the city, this means one person indoors and 50 outdoors for places of worship and political activities. But nowhere in the reopening guidelines has there been a definitive measure of how many people are considered “limited” for personal care services. The Office of Economic and Workforce Development confirmed to Mission Local Friday afternoon that this definition wouldn’t be released until next week. 

Salon owners said they worry that if they violate whatever magic number the city requires later on, they’ll be forced to shut down again. 

So Friday morning, Webb rushed to his downtown space on Grant Street, Zindagi Salon, hurriedly preparing schedules and implementing Covid-19 training for incoming staff. He said he hopes Thursday’s announcement means he can retain 50 percent of his normal capacity, though he’s unsure. Even while working around the clock, the earliest he’ll be able to open his doors is one day after he’s permitted, on Tuesday, Sept. 15. 

“This is something, this is better,” he said. “But I have to figure out how I am going to do this. I am excited and nervous.”

Webb didn’t expect this, especially after the industry saw false starts this summer. Even the mayor’s office said the news came “earlier than the City previously announced” and, on Wednesday, a letter from the Health Officer of the City & County of San Francisco, Dr. Tomás Aragón, stated that he expected to address this next week

Others like Josie Li, owner of downtown salon La Boutique on Sutter Street, were previously prepared for a quick start following the Nancy Pelosi salon scandal. Nevertheless, she found the announcement lacking. 

She said that without explicit government guidance on “limited capacity,” she gathered some salon owners that she had already been organizing with to come up with their own standards: they defined it as 100 square feet of space per client and that clients come in contact with masked stylists and receptionists only. 

“I think we should be grateful that we can open under the circumstances, but whoever is in charge of salons needs to stand up more. We need good leaders for [guiding] this industry, and we don’t have any right now,” Li said.  

Huy Le, owner of Revamp Salon on 16th Street, said he interpreted the ruling as 25 percent capacity for chairs, and he plans to divide staff among two shifts, morning and evening. 

“I am just happy to have our business slowly reopen,” Le said. “It is a desperate time with poor leadership.”

Covid still complicates the situation. To prevent transmission, indoor businesses must mandate masks and operate at, well, limited capacity. While Webb is relieved to get customers back in chairs, it’s unclear if the revenue will be sufficient to pay off future and back rent, especially with an unknown number of customers. Before the pandemic, he barely made a profit. 

“I am fearful more than anything,” Webb said, noting he was locked in with three years left on his lease that he would be responsible for if he closed later on. “Imagine if I have bankruptcy.”

And, salon owners face the issue of rehiring stylists who may have fled the city long ago or sent in their resignation. Webb said salons charge a fee for independent stylists to work at their facilities, which owners then use to help pay off rent, so some of his hairstylists opted to pocket more by independently cutting people’s hair in backyards instead. 

This resonated with Louise Baranowski, owner of Cowboys and Angels Hair Salon and Art Gallery downtown. She had already decided to close her doors for good last week; Thursday’s news “pulled at her heartstrings.”

“The announcement came too late for me,” Baranowski said. 

She normally rents out 22 chairs to hairstylists; earlier in the pandemic, when it was clear the government would not provide a reopening date, two of her main stylists left. Soon, it led to  more, until she was left with four stylists as of last week. 

“It started a ripple effect,” Baranowski said. “I put out feelers to see if there were others, but I don’t think people want to go back to big salons anymore.”

The revenue earned by four stylists is not enough for her to survive, Baranowski said. Plus, lately, downtown has been a ghost town; what will draw new customers? 

To cut her losses, she decided to close the business, which opened in 1994. 

“The loss was like a 27-year [marriage had ended in a] divorce I wasn’t planning on,” she said.

Certainly, the reopening plan is good news for some businesses who, for months, have been starved of sales. Small gyms and hair salons were among those protesting and demanding answers from City Hall recently. 

In addition to all the indoor activities, outdoor activities such as drive-in movies, mini-golf and go-carting, open air boats and tour buses will open Sept. 14. The following week on Sept. 21, zoos, aquariums, and classrooms for students up to sixth grade are slated to open if safety plans were submitted.

The Director of Public Health, Dr. Grant Colfax, said Thursday that our local Covid trends prompted this launch into reopening low-risk, limited capacity, indoor activities. 

“Our success is contingent on everyone doing their part, including wearing face coverings, social distancing, and avoiding large gatherings,” Colfax said. 

San Francisco County remains in the red zone, which the state deems as a “substantial risk.” As of Friday, the city’s total number of cases is 10,188 and 89 people have died. 

“We need to get back to work,” Li said. “Everyone is ready.”

Updated Sept. 11, 5:24 p.m. to include a comment from the Office of Economic and Workforce Development and comment from Huy Le, both of who could not comment immediately. 

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REPORTER. 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 on local news and immigration. She is a proud Chinese and Filipina American. She has a twin brother that (contrary to soap opera tropes) is not evil.

Follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaHom.

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  1. While the city has yet to announce more detailed guidelines, it isn’t exactly the case that business owners are left entirely in the dark. The State of California has put forward multiple publications and guidance documents that provide further information for hair salon and gym owners – and effectively set a ceiling in terms of reopening. While SF can take a more conservative approach, the State has defined the percentage capacity that limited reopening for a county in the “red zone.” This omission from this article is misleading in making it seem like owners are entirely on their own, with no guidance from relevant authorities.

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  2. Kind of a random photo description it seems- what do red carpet lanes have to do with anything? Reused photo?

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  3. Why is Colfax still In a job? The city’s Covid data collection, analysis and guidelines have been disastrous since day one of this farce. He’s sat and watched the Latino community get hammered by this and did nothing to educate and protect the most vulnerable. Instead he took the easy way out and shut the city down with a useless “one size fits all” lockdown to try and cover his own backside and in the process destroyed the livelihoods of all our small business owners who could have been operating safely months ago.

    As journalists you are not doing enough to hold this fool accountable for his actions. You are letting him and Breed get away with literally murder. Start asking the right questions now!

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