Chelsey Drapeau, a hair stylist in Brooklyn, bought an avocado-printed dress for her first appointment since the New York shutdown began. “I was like, ‘What to wear?’” Drapeau told The Daily Beast. “The season has changed since I last worked [in March]. I went through my closet and got rid of stuff during COVID. So I got something new!”
Hairstylists know much about the restorative power of looking good. In her Bushwick salon, decked out with wood-paneled mirrors and leafy green plants, Drapeau hoped her laid-back uniform might offset some first-day-back jitters.
“I’m anxious about interacting with people constantly,” she said. “Am I going to handle this after being alone for so long? Another concern was that everyone just wants to talk about COVID and lockdown. Just having to talk about that over and over again—it’s a little stress-inducing, everyone can agree.”
Drapeau’s first client was scheduled to come at 12:30 p.m., and she would only see two people on June 22, the date Governor Andrew Cuomo set as a reopening for hair salons and barbershops. (Nail salons and tattoo parlors have still not received this green-light.) Parameters about social distancing and sanitization are in effect, which means all businesses operate at a reduced capacity.
The week before returning, Drapeau brought a few stylist friends into her salon to practice doing hair after two months spent at home. “I wanted to see how much extra time it takes to clean in between appointments,” she said. “I wondered, ‘Am I going to know how to do hair anymore? Am I going to freak out? But I feel good about it now.”
Drapeau knows of some salons that are encouraging clients not to speak inside, for fear of transmitting the virus. But she wants to chat with everyone, especially since her salon had only been open for two weeks before the pandemic shuttered storefronts. One of the hardest parts of readjusting to “normal” life, she said, was not knowing how to greet her closest customers. Hugs, of course, are off limits.
“I’m lucky to have experienced Newburgh first,” Carey said. “It was extremely busy, we were running out of things quicker than I thought we would. I could feel the anxiety and stress about realizing that mistakes will be made, and you just do your best. I have to tell myself that. You start becoming obsessed.”
In Newburgh, Carey asked that clients wait outside of the salon before entering for their appointments. At one point, the stylist poked his head out to let a man know he was ready to be seen. “I’m standing there looking at him thinking, ‘Oh my god, hurry up,’” Carey said. “And he’s like, ‘Stop freaking out.’ So my new mantra is, ‘Calm the fuck down.’”
On Monday, Carey had six clients, which he says is a “pretty normal” day. Appointments have been spaced out by 15 extra minutes to allow for more sanitizing. One empty seat is kept between stylists’ stations to allow for some social distancing.
Carey’s first client in the morning seemed to be an ideal customer. She asked to be the first person inside the salon, so no one else would be there. “She walked in, and it smelled like bleach,” he said, noting the compulsive cleanliness of our times.
“All of our clients came in and we’ve known them for a while,” Carey added. “She came in and did that awkward, ‘OK, we’re not going to hug!’ thing. But after that it’s the same process: shampoo, cut, mousse in the hair. It was cute.”
Things look different, but the salon energy—all that gossip and laughter—remains, even if it’s filtered through a face mask. “There are the technicalities of gloves, six feet, whatever, but nothing has changed in terms of talent or the process. We’re still going to talk shit at the salon. Especially about everyone’s quarantine baes.”
Carey estimates he is booked about two weeks in advance, but admitted that while his team is busy, “some people still aren’t ready to socialize just yet.” Also, some of his regulars fled the city during the pandemic.
Dhiran Mistry works at the exclusive David Mallett salon in Soho, where a cut can cost upwards of $225. His first day back is Thursday, after months of suddenly becoming a stay-at-home father to his toddler, River.
“Basically, I swapped haircare for childcare,” Mistry said. “It’s tough. I’m excited to get back, but I definitely miss spending time with him.”
To limit the number of people in the salon, which normally has eight chairs, only one colorist and one stylist will work at a time. “We’ve extended the hours and we’re working three days each,” Mistry explained. “That kind of sucks, because I was doing five days before and now I can only do three days. As happy as I am to be going back, this means there will still be a lack of wage generated.”
Mistry is used to doing about 45 haircuts a week; now he’ll be down to around 30. “My schedule is packed,” he said. “But a lot of clients left town. So I’ve had messages saying, I’m coming into New York for a day or two, can you see me? Because I’m booked, I can’t accommodate those people. So with a lot of regulars, I’m going to lose that business.”
There will be turf wars over using air conditioning. Mistry and his team expect to get pretty hot and sticky wearing face masks all day, but turning up the AC might leave clients with wet hair shivering.
“It’s not really ideal, but I’m grateful to be there,” he said. “It’s been quite depressing not being able to go in and have that human interaction. I’m used to having 10 different conversations a day. That was really hard for me mentally in the beginning. One thing I love about my job is that I’m able to keep people happy. That makes me happy. That’s what I have missed the most.”
Not everyone has opened just yet. Georgie Downie manages operations at her husband’s Kennaland salon in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
“We decided not to jump in too quickly,” she said. “A lot of salons are putting up plastic screens for protection. We’re quite design-focused, and have a lot of clients in fashion. We didn’t want to put up temporary screens that looked cheap, so we built in full height wire glass frame screens between every chair. It’s a cool little glass cubicle.”
This week, Kennaland will begin sending stylists out in rented cars to the Hamptons, to give house calls to New York expats who have found themselves quarantined out east. “I”m not sure if people are trying to stick the waitlist, but we have a lot of clients who are saying, ‘I’m leaving on July 5, can you squeeze me in?’ People still seem to be leaving New York.”
Right before the pandemic started, Kimberly Cannon worked as a colorist at Sally Hershberger in Hudson Yards. When she returns to work next week, she’ll begin at Mark Ryan in Chelsea. She has practiced wearing a mask for six hours straight in preparation for her first shift.
“It’s a lot,” she said. “One of the things I’m most nervous about is being hot. We wear a mask, [face] shield, gloves, and smock over our clothes. The temperature balance will be tricky, but we’ll have breaks where we can sip some water.”
If Cannon needs to see a client's face before she cuts their hair, she will have them take off their mask and wear a plastic face shield for a few minutes. “That’s going to be super helpful in seeing skin tone, face shape, those kinds of things.”
Cannon eased back into work by forcing makeovers on her family in Philadelphia this weekend. “I said, ‘Mom, I’ve got to highlight your hair!’” she said. “It’s a muscle you have to remember how to use. So I’m doing my whole family’s hair for practice—mom, sister-in-law, younger sister. On Father’s Day, during the barbecue, I had everyone sit down real quick so I could do their hair.”