Federal regulators are investigating complaints that several hair salons and barbershops in Maine may not be following recommended procedures for protecting workers from exposure to COVID-19.

Edmund Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Boston, said the agency opened investigations after receiving three complaints about stylists and barbers not following federal guidelines, based on workplace photos and videos that have appeared in news or social media.

“Employers are and will continue to be responsible for providing a workplace free of known health and safety hazards,” Fitzgerald said in an email Wednesday. “OSHA has pre-existing requirements and standards that not only remain in place and enforceable, but also apply to protecting workers from the coronavirus.”

Among the things revealed in photos and videos are stylists or barbers not using protective face shields or glasses, not using gloves and using cloth face coverings in place of face masks.

Fitzgerald said the investigation of the shops in question could take up to six months to complete, but OSHA would strive to make a determination more quickly if possible. The complaints and names of the shops will not be made public until the investigation is complete, he said.

Hair salons and barber shops were among the first businesses in Maine allowed to open last Friday, under strict conditions established as part of a phased plan  to restart parts of the state’s economy developed by the administration of Gov. Janet Mills.

The governor’s office did not respond to questions Thursday about the OSHA investigations or about what the state is doing to enforce its new requirements for stylists and barbers.

During a news conference Thursday during which Mills announced a new agreement that could triple the state’s capacity to test for the virus, the governor told a reporter that those with concerns that state regulations or laws were not being followed should contact local law enforcement or state police. She also said workers who reported health and safety violations related to COVID-19 are protected under state whistleblower laws.

Fitzgerald also noted that federal law protects whistleblowers against retaliation by an employer or the government.

Mills and her administration have taken criticism from some stylists and barbers, who say they don’t feel safe returning to work and have questioned why Maine has put their occupation, which requires them to be in close proximity to their clients, at the top of the list for businesses being allowed to reopen first.  Maine is outlier among states in New England and elsewhere in putting salons and barber shops among the first businesses to restart.

Julia Perry, a Brunswick stylist who has become an activist on the issue and the leader of a Facebook group set up to support her colleagues as they grapple with returning to work during the pandemic, said group members have been reporting apparent violations of the state’s guidelines, documented in media images, to both federal and local enforcement agencies. Perry and her peers also have been reaching out to the Mills’ administration and state lawmakers in hopes of getting Mills to roll back an order that put hair salons in the first phase of Maine’s reopening.

Perry said her groups believes the state should ensure the guidelines are being followed, even though they dispute whether the guidelines adequately protect stylists, barbers or other salon employees.

“Even though about 56 percent of it is moot, for what it is, it needs to be upheld at this point,” Perry said. “Otherwise it is undermining our licensing standards and undermining our checklist.”

In addition to state requirements and guidelines, federal law aimed at protecting workplace safety and health applies to employers during the pandemic. A 35-page guidance on preparing workplaces for COVID-19, issued by OSHA in March, details several key requirements of federal law. These include provisions for the use of personal protective equipment, its maintenance and general requirements that employers provide workers “employment and a place of employment, which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.”

The guidance also details how employers should classify workers’ risk from exposure to the virus based on several factors, including, “industry type, need for contact within 6 feet of people known to be, or suspected of being, infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the novel coronavirus), or requirement for repeated or extended contact with persons known to be, or suspected of being, infected with SARS-CoV-2.”

Under the federal guidance hair stylists would appear to be classified as “medium risk” based on the need for them to have frequent and close contact within 6 feet of people “who may be infected … but who are not known or suspected COVID-19 patients.”

The governor’s plan does not require shops to reopen, but salon and shop owners have said they feel pressured to do so by customers and state government and fear if they delay reopening, they will lose their clients to other shops.

Perry said she has also been contacting local police and local code enforcement officers when they see violations of new state requirements for stylists and barbers, which include the use of personal protective equipment, including face masks, gloves and face shields. Salons and shops are also expected to sanitize and clean work spaces after each appointment with a customer.

The decision by Mills and Heather Johnson, the commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, to put barbershops and salons in the first phase of the reopening was guided by advice from those within the industry, Johnson said at a news briefing Wednesday – although she did not say which barbers or stylists were consulted with.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday that 76 new cases of the disease had been detected, bringing the total number of cases to 1,330. The death toll remained at 62.

Governors in most other states have put hair styling and grooming services further down the list in their phased reopening plans.

Maine’s decision also seems to be in conflict with a three-phased reopening plan for the U.S. economy issued by the White House last week.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the COVID-19 response coordinator for President Trump, has cautioned governors about including hair-cutting services in the first phases of their reopening plans.

During an interview on Fox News Sunday, Birx said Trump “made it clear” to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp that the president did not agree with opening barber shops in that state when Kemp issued an executive order allowing it on April 24.

Johnson, the Maine DECD commissioner, said at Wednesday’s briefing that the decision was made in part because hair salons are often owner-operated and they already have high standards for hygiene and cleanliness.

“So when you layer on additional protocols it is fairly easy for them to manage,” Johnson said. She added that customers are usually loyal to one salon and are well known to their barbers or stylists who can screen them for cuts by appointment only, as required by the state’s new rules.

Johnson said many of the 2,600 salons in Maine are owner operated, with owners often working in the salon alongside other stylists, allowing them to closely enforce and control the new protocols. Maine has 8,130 licensed cosmetologists and 444 licensed barbers and hair stylists, according to the state’s Department of Professional and Financial Regulation.

Barbers like Tina Croteau, who owns Marcel’s Barber Shop in Auburn, said the new protocols issued by the state on short notice last week are difficult to manage. They are also expensive, involving the purchase of additional supplies including masks, gloves and cleaning chemicals and materials.

“It feels like we have the same level of sanitation required like we are doing medical procedures, but we are not doctors,” said Croteau, who owns her shop, leases space to about 10 others and describes herself as a landlord rather than an employer. She added that the new requirements and cost forced her to up the price of a regular men’s haircut from $12 to $15.

Like Perry and other stylists and barbers, Croteau said she didn’t think it was time yet to be in close proximity with her customers but worried they would go elsewhere if she didn’t open as soon as she was allowed to.

“They are just going to go to the beauty salons with their wives and we are going to lose those customers,” Croteau said. And while she is already booked well into the middle of May, the number of haircuts she can provide on a daily basis has dropped dramatically from between 35 to 40 customers a day to just 10 to 12, she added.

Croteau, who quit smoking a year ago on Memorial Day, said the money she had saved from kicking the habit was going to be spent on a vacation but instead she has spent it on COVID-19 precautions for her barber shop including gloves, masks and cleaning supplies that are used more frequently to comply with the state’s new requirements.


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