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Northern California massage shops, hairdressers struggle to survive their extended coronavirus lockdown

With the coronavirus outbreak upending the world as we know it, it's also turned Kila Gomer's hairdo into a split-end nightmare.

“I'm just wearing my hair up in a messy bun,” said Gomer, who just came home from the hospital after delivering her second child.

Still, the problem is, her Santa Rosa hair stylist Danielle Molkenbuhr is unable to work on her client's hair, as the result of a shelter-in-place order for the industry that California Gov. Gavin Newsom said could last “months, not weeks” for high-touch businesses such as hair- and nail salons, massage therapy and gyms that fall into stage 3 of the state's reopening strategy.

These North Bay businesses are not happy this order cuts into their livelihood in dramatic fashion.

“I got lucky I did see her two weeks before (the state shutdown). We'll see how long it goes,” Gomer said, laughing about the prospect of doing it herself.

Newsom's comment sparked an outcry from these industries, with the Professional Beauty Federation of California threatening on Thursday to take legal action within days.

“We knew when we heard ‘months, not weeks,' we knew we'd have to file a lawsuit,” said Auburn attorney Fred Jones, who represents the Federation's 500,000 individual barbers and cosmetologists as well as 50,000 establishments licensed through the state Board of Barbering & Cosmetology.

Jones told the Business Journal the Federation board tried to negotiate in good faith with the state but reached an impasse after sending a letter claiming the shutdown has “financially squeezed a huge number of students, stylists and salon owners, which will only grow if this lockdown on our industry is extended.”

“The Board of Barbering and Cosmetology acknowledges and is sympathetic to the ever-changing environment that the COVID-19 pandemic has created for licensees. Our role is to ensure the health and safety of California consumers by promoting ethical standards and by enforcing the laws of the barbering and beauty industry. For the safety of our consumers and our licensees, the board continues to urge licensees to abide by the governor's stay at home order,” read the state's letter to the industry, obtained by the Journal.

Licensees who violate the order may face “disciplinary action,” it said.

The state Secretary of Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency Lourdes M. Castro Ramirez hadn't responded to the Journal by Friday morning.

Veronica Harms, deputy director of the state's consumer affairs division, spoke on behalf of the board, explaining the state is unable to comment on pending litigation.

“The governor is not going to open them. He's doubled down (on the closure),” Jones said.

The Federation, which was established in 1999 to provide a unified voice for the industry, has indicated it garnered 60,000 signatures on a petition insisting they get back to work.

The Auburn industry advocacy group contends its thousands of members already practice professional-level hygiene and sanitation.

I never thought it would get to this level. In the first several weeks, I didn't sleep at all. Danielle Molkenbuhr, Santa Rosa hair stylist

Molkenbuhr noted how her training to be a licensed hair stylist involves 1,600 hours, with a significant segment dedicated to the body's anatomy, along with the threats of bacterial, fungal and viral transmissions.

The stylist of 15 years has worked hard to develop a solid list of clientele at Halo Salon in Santa Rosa. These customers are calling her and teasing about circumventing the rules.

“People are desperate. They'll ask me to do (their hair) jokingly and say ‘I'll meet you anywhere,'” she said, adding one client suggested meeting at a gas station.

As weeks to months go by, Molkenbuhr admitted her clients may not be the only desperate ones. Her husband is working full time since his medical-related job is considered essential, but she calls the income a “Band-aid” in comparison to the overall finances necessary to run the household and her contract work at the salon.

She and her colleagues filed this week for the special Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PAU) established for independent contractors.

“I never thought it would get to this level. In the first several weeks, I didn't sleep at all,” she told the Journal.

Crisis cutting into more industries

Massage therapists are also feeling the pain of receiving no income in the state's imposed waiting period for them to see clients, who they stand over in close proximity as they work on the muscles.

“It's going to be increasingly financially difficult,” said Stacy Desjardins, who has operated Santa Rosa Medical Massage Therapy for a decade. It closed on March 15.

Desjardins, who has gone almost two months without working, has already experienced calls from creditors and doesn't like it.

“It's a weird place because I've never been here before,” she said.

Meanwhile, the therapist is trying to stay productive by developing a plan once she reopens. The therapy rooms are undergoing a thorough cleansing.

She got an eerie feeling stepping into her place of business.

“I thought it would feel good to be here. I'm OK not being open for a while. I don't want to get sick. This is such a silent enemy. It's scary,” she said.

Although the plan is still a work in progress, Desjardins is considering wearing button-down shirts that can be changed after each client's session. Before the pandemic, she averaged seven clients a day. Also between sessions, Desjardins plans to change all linens including top blankets to coincide with the sheets. She's removing bed skirts, and cleaning now involves even the massage table's legs. She's honed mixing the Clorox bleach solution and will ban any crossover time between clients in the lobby.

The Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals organization, based in Golden, Colorado, also recommends therapists give their office and treatment rooms a fresh eye, while removing clutter, other unnecessary items and product samples.

The group also suggests placing hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes and facial tissues in all spaces and adding a non-porous chair or hard surface for clients' to put their clothes on. Lidded trashcans will also serve a purpose in closing up used tissues. In restrooms, no-touch soap should be the thing to install. Air purifiers would also add to the cleansing experience.

The American Massage Therapy Association added to the list by recommending therapists update their booking practices to include sanitization procedures and erect signs that inform clients of new rules. The Evanston, Illinois-based group has also suggested wearing and having personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves on hand.

(T)his whole thing started in the state of California, the first community spread, in a nail salon. Gov. Gavin Newsom

With all the measures being implemented, Newsom reemphasized in his press conference Thursday why businesses like nail salons have been labeled in a low priority opening timeline:

“To nail salons, this whole thing started in the state of California, the first community spread, in a nail salon. I just want to remind people of that,” the governor said. “I'm very worried about that. We hope to get to that next new phase shortly, but right now all of our health indicators and health directives that I received from health directors across the state put some red flags in that space.”

As spa retreats go, the general manager of Osmosis in Freestone, Michael Stusser, plans to install an improved air-handling system called Atmos Air. The system is designed to eliminate bacteria, viruses and mold. PPE will be readily available when his staff returns. He also plans to install sinks in every treatment room and requires the staff to use masks.

“Whatever it takes for people to come back to hands-on healing. We've had to rethink everything,” he said. “We've worked so hard to build up (the business).”

Stusser, who serves on the Green Spa Network which is a spa management alliance, was forced to furlough all but the gardener and bookkeeper out of 80 employees who were paid their full paychecks for the first two weeks of the shutdown. Osmosis canceled 541 appointments, which doesn't include how many would have made arrangements for massage, music healing hammocks and other services in this Japanese-inspired garden retreat.

At least there was a rainy day cash reserve. We're halfway through that. Michael Stusser, general manager of Osmosis in Freestone

The retreat manager applied for an economic injury disaster loan. He remains optimistic his spa retreat will reopen “better than ever” and in some respects, views the crisis as “a golden opportunity for self awareness and responsibility” for Earth-friendly living.

But transformation often never comes easy.

“It was a huge gut punch,” Stusser told the Business Journal. “At least there was a rainy day cash reserve. We're halfway through that.”

Massage therapist Colleen Ostergren, who runs Sonoma Deep Tissue Massage, has it rough, despite being deemed a medically-necessary business since her treatment involves a “structural integration practitioner” like chiropractors.

Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties' public health departments failed to respond to numerous requests to comment on the distinction.

Ostergren, who has given massage for 26 years, has cleaned everything as deeply as the massages she provides. She's also installed a special UV air filter to cleanse the rooms.

But since appointments have all but dried up, she's “living on savings” and contemplating a move to either her homeland of New Jersey or Mexico where the cost of living is lower.

Fitness is getting kicked where it hurts

Since gyms have fallen into the state's late Stage 3 category of reopening, Healthquest owner Tony Giovannoni wants to make good use of his time while his members are away.

The Napa gym is getting a complete paint makeover and thorough cleaning, while the sauna is being rebuilt. Giovanonni plans to install hand sanitizers in every room.

He's also eyeing the layout of the workout machines, trying to decide how to space them apart by at least 6 feet. At least he expanded a decade ago, adding 13,000 square feet to the 33,000-square-foot facility.

“Here in the building, we're working away. A lot of money is going out,” the fitness center owner said.

On the flip side, no money has been coming in as gyms look more like ghost cities. Of the 90 employees, only 10 full-timers have stayed on board.

“I've resigned to the fact I'm taking no salary from the company,” he said, adding the irony the business turns 30 years old in June. “We could be weeks away from opening. I'm watching it closely. It's going to be a whole new world.”

Giovanonni comes from a family of grocers who are considered essential during these troubling times. His cousin has been “very busy” with that and rubs it in in a playful way when he sees the gym owner.

“I'm jealous,” Giovanonni said.

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