Clockwise from left, Tracy Sylvester, Cindy Barrington, Ruth Reglin, Bambi Libby, Becky Calden, Andreanna Bisson and Missy Cohen at a staff meeting Friday at The Gallery Hair Studio and Spa in Topsham. There are 10 stylists who work out of the salon. They were scheduled to open back up on Saturday, but with two teams working on different days and incorporating other safety measures. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

When the news broke that barbershops and hair salons would be among the first businesses in Maine allowed to reopen after being shuttered in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Julia Perry’s phone started blowing up.

“It wasn’t three minutes after the announcement and I had three text messages from clients wanting to book appointments,” said Perry, a Brunswick-area hair stylist and cosmetologist.

But Perry wasn’t happy. She thinks it could be unsafe for her to reopen now.

The state of Maine includes hair salons in the first reopening stage because it thinks they can take steps to minimize transmission of the virus.

But several other states, including Florida and California, believe hair salons are riskier operations and won’t be allowed to open until months from now.

The discrepancy shows the various approaches governors are taking as they try to stabilize the economy. It also shows there are no universally agreed-upon guidelines, and that the decisions about reopening may be affected by many factors, including politics and economics in addition to health concerns like Perry’s.

She fears it won’t be safe to be in close proximity to her customers. Without personal protective equipment, she’s afraid she could get sick or, even worse, become a vector spreading COVID-19 to her customers and community.

Early Wednesday morning and unable to sleep, thinking she was the only stylist in Maine who was afraid to return to work too soon, she launched a private Facebook Group, “Maine Barbers and Cosmetologists Unite! Phase 1 on 5/1 Is Too Soon,” to express her concerns.

“I felt really alone,” said Perry, who most recently was renting a space in a Topsham salon. But by the end of the day on Thursday Perry knew she wasn’t alone. The new group had more than 200 members and by Friday more than 300 had joined. Members are all licensed by the state to provide various personal services from hair and skin care to manicures to massages.

Like dozens of other governors, Gov. Janet Mills announced last week that Maine was starting a four-stage, if tentative plan, to restart sectors of the state’s now foundering economy. Beyond hair salons, the first stage allows for limited operations at Maine car dealers, golf courses, dental offices and dog grooming businesses, among others.

Any of the stages could be stopped or rolled back, depending on what happens with the virus, Mills told reporters Tuesday during the daily briefing on the state’s response to the pandemic.

Mills, a Democrat, and Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, both quipped about finally being able to get a haircut.

“I need to get mine done. I put that Flowbee on eBay way too soon,” said Shah, referencing a gimmicky hair-clipping device that attaches to a home vacuum cleaner.

But Perry and many of her colleagues found little humor in the joke.

She said stylists, especially independent contractors, who are essentially their own small business, felt pressured and uncertain. The Mills administration pegged the date of the restart to Friday, May 1, which was also the first day that self-employed workers in Maine could begin to apply for a new federally funded unemployment program aimed at helping those who lost work because of COVID-19.

Unlike several other governors who announced the phased reopening of businesses, Mills put hair salons and barbershops near the head of the line.

Florida Gov. Rick DeSantis on Wednesday announced his state would move into a phased reopening on May 4 – but his administration has left barbershops and hair salons on the list of businesses that needed to remain closed for now. Florida cited the close proximity that barbers and stylists have with their clients and their inability to provide their service with adequate protections.

California also left hair salons and barbershops closed in the first phase of its reopening plan, while a handful of other states have allowed them to open by appointment only and with other limits.

In New England, Maine is the only state allowing barbers and hair salons in its first phase of reopening. New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu has yet to announce a time frame or detailed plan for reopening his state. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker Tuesday extended his stay-at-home advisory to May 18 while announcing he had formed a 16-member advisory panel to begin the process of developing a reopening plan for the Bay State.

In Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott eased an executive order allowing some construction workers, in small groups, to return to work. But Scott did not announce a phased reopening of the state, saying several factors with the virus needed to change further for him to move in that direction. Barbershops and hair salons will remain closed in Vermont.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo last week also announced a phased reopening of her state’s economy that she hoped to begin on May 9. But Raimondo put hair salons and barbershops in the second phase of that reopening.

In a press release last week announcing the stages and the timeline for her plan, Mills said she included businesses in the first phase of the reopening that her administration believed would be the most likely to be successful in operating without contributing to additional spread of the virus.

Mills addressed reopening of hair salons further in a statement she issued at a media briefing Friday, where she took no questions from reporters.

“We trust them to know whether they can operate safely under the new guidelines, and if they do not yet have the equipment or protocols they need or simply do not feel safe reopening, they should not reopen and they don’t have to,” Mills said. She also urged potential customers to make sure their barber or stylist was complying with the new guidelines.

Stylists and barbers were issued a six-page checklist that includes dozens of new requirements and reiterates others already required for existing licensing.

Among other things, salon operators must require all employees working on customers to use a protective face mask, not just a cloth face covering. They must wear protective gloves and change them between each client. The guidelines also recommend face shields for workers as well and requires that clients also wear face masks. Only pre-scheduled appointments are allowed and clients are screened ahead of time with a list of specific health-related questions.

The traditional capes used to cover a client to keep falling hair off clothing must be newly clean for each client. The guidelines suggest laundering capes between each use or recommends using disposable capes. The checklist also requires stylists to wear a new clean smock for each client and requires a detailed list of sanitation practices to be followed daily and between each client. The guidelines also call for no inside waiting areas and no inside snacks or beverages for clients. Clients are required to abide by strict social distancing rules and must either wait outside of the salon, at least 6 feet apart, or in their cars until it’s time for their appointment, among other requirements.

Shah, the Maine CDC director, also noted Friday that Maine’s rate of infection from coronavirus remained the lowest of all the New England states and was significantly lower than in Massachusetts. He said he had a high rate of confidence that spread of the virus could be prevented if businesses followed the guidelines closely.

Perry and the members of her Facebook group have begun a letter-writing campaign to Mills hoping she may reverse her decision on their inclusion in the first stage of the reopening plan. Beyond concerns for health, Perry said the supply chain for personal protective equipment is hard to access and the requirements in the new guidelines for protective coverings and masks for customers and workers, additional cleaning and sanitizing supplies will add to their costs.

Stylists will also lose time working with gloves and masks on, and will likely serve far fewer customers each day, lowering their profit margins, Perry said.

Perry typically charges $25 for a men’s haircut, but she thinks that price may have to double if she is going to be able to make the same income she made before the pandemic.

Ruth Reglin, one of four co-owners of The Gallery Hair Studio and Spa in Topsham, said the news that barbers and cosmetologists would be among the first to reopen took all of the owners by surprise.

“The numbers (of COVID-19 cases) were far lower when we were forced to close,” Reglin said.

Ruth Reglin, a co-owner of The Gallery Hair Studio and Spa, stands for a portrait outside of the salon in Topsham on Friday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

She said a new directive issued by state government on how they should operate to protect their customers and themselves from COVID-19 only exacerbated their concerns. She said it didn’t appear the directive had been written by anybody with “any actual understanding of what we as stylists do.”

She said that highlights the need for the state to reinstate its Board of Cosmetology, which was combined with the Board of Barbering several years ago in a government consolidation effort.

The partners at Reglin’s studio and spa were “kind of  split on what we wanted to do, so we decided to open.” The four owners lease space to six other stylists and all 10 planned to return to work on Saturday, but in two shifts with five-person teams.

“If we do become ill with the virus, then it will be on one team or the other,” Reglin said.

Alongside the health concerns, Reglin said, is a fear among stylists that they could lose valuable clients if they don’t open now.

“If salons are open and (stylists) don’t go back to work, they worry their clients will go someplace else,” Reglin said. “It’s a lot of pressure.”

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