As a hairstylist in Toronto, Michele Bonnick has had to keep the doors of her midtown salon closed since November. In December, she started a wait-list for clients who wanted an appointment as soon as the lockdown lifted. That list, she says, is now 150 names long.
When the Ontario government announced on Friday that salons in the region could reopen on April 12, she said her phone started ringing off the hook with clients on the wait-list wanting to finally book their appointments.
“As soon as we got the announcement, we sent out an e-blast and the phone has just been crazy,” said Ms. Bonnick, the owner of Amani Hair Studio.
But Ms. Bonnick, who estimated her revenue has dropped 60 per cent in the past year, said there’s still too much uncertainty about rising COVID-19 case counts to know whether her business will actually be able to resume service after all.
“I’m still not confident,” she said. “I don’t know if something else is going to pop up.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the hairstyling industry, forcing salons to close or limit capacity under public-health orders and resulting in a major economic impact on the tens of thousands of people who work in the sector.
It is emblematic of how the financial fallout from the pandemic has struck service workers – more likely to be female and/or racialized – especially hard. According to Statistics Canada, hairstylists, who make an estimated median annual salary of $33,900, are more likely to be women (85 per cent), just over half are self-employed, and they were nearly three times more likely to have lost their job in 2020 than other occupations.
And although government support, such as the rent and wage subsidies, has helped, many salons have been forced to stay closed for months at a time – if not permanently – and invest heavily in personal protective equipment.
The situation has varied across Canada. In British Columbia, salons were closed for just two months in the spring of 2020 and have been open since then with safety restrictions in place.
Chenoa LeBlanc, the owner of Field Trip Hair Co. in Vancouver, said her tight-knit community of clients appreciates the salon’s inclusive vibe, which includes genderless pricing. A surge in online product sales paid the rent while the salon was closed, and even though the shop has only run at half-capacity since then, she estimated annual revenue was down only about 25 per cent.
She said many of her clients are still avoiding other activities outside their home, such as going to a restaurant, but will make an exception to see one of Field Trip’s seven stylists.
“The energy they bring in is really positive,” Ms. LeBlanc said. “We get a lot of feedback that’s like, ‘This is the first time I’ve been touched in months. This is the first conversation I’ve had in-person for months.’ Being able to have that really human interaction in a time when human interactions are kind of scary is really quite beautiful.”
In parts of Ontario, however, salons have been closed for nearly half of the past 12 months – and could be forced to close again amid a resurgent third wave of the virus.
Tanya Hill, who owns the Tappa Hair Salon and Beauty Bar in Ottawa’s Carlingwood Mall, said her revenue was down about 40 per cent over the year.
She had to lay off her 15 employees during the first wave of lockdowns, which ran from mid-March to mid-June. During that time, her staff took the Canada Emergency Response Benefit payments of $2,000 a month. Most staff came back and continued working until the provincial government ordered another lockdown in December, at which point they were again laid off and had to collect employment insurance benefits for nearly two months. Moreover, stylists were no longer making the additional tips they used to rely on.
“They’ve definitely been adversely affected economically during this for sure,” Ms. Hill said.
Brenton Alleyne, who founded two locations of Alleyne’s Gentlemen’s Grooming Centre in Ajax and Brooklin, Ont., said it’s been hard to adjust to the new business cycle driven by the lockdowns and reopenings.
“It’s like we went back to the ground floor all over again a few times,” he said.
Lockdowns create pent-up demand, and when salons reopen there’s often a surge of clients coming in for a few weeks – but then demand dies down again.
Mr. Alleyne said he’s worried about how the barbering business, built heavily on developing a regular habit among its customers, is being disrupted by the new pandemic routines.
He recalls one former regular customer, an executive at a credit-card company who used to come in twice a week – on Wednesdays for a haircut, hair colour and beard detail, and then again on Saturdays for a shave and touchup.
“We’re back open, [but] he didn’t come in for two months,” Mr. Alleyne said. “We asked: ‘What happened?’ He said: ‘I’m working from home. I don’t have to turn my camera on – I barely have to interact with people. I’ve gotten used to it.’”
After the difficulties of the past year, salon owners and other industry professionals are concerned about the next generation of stylists – and whether new people may not even enter the profession – given that the pandemic has made it more difficult for those just starting out.
Hairstyling is a compulsory trade (a skilled trade that requires government certification) in half of Canada’s provinces. In Ontario, a licence requires 3,020 hours of on-the-job experience as an apprentice, 480 hours of in-school training and the successful completion of a certification exam.
Hannah Rooney, who works as a makeup artist on film and TV shoots in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., was almost ready to become a full-time hairstylist. Doing hair has long been her passion, and the job also provides steadier work and better hours.
Ms. Rooney completed her apprenticeship just before the pandemic hit but has found it difficult to schedule and write her final exam in the year since.
“I’ve been having to prioritize taking work over writing my exam because of the lack of work,” Ms. Rooney said.
But, as in other industries, the pandemic is forcing some entrepreneurs to try something new.
Ediri and Lucky Okurame soft-launched the Lucky Hair & Beauty Studio in Regina in December, months into the pandemic.
It was the second salon Lucky had started, but the first the couple had worked on together since arriving in Canada from Nigeria.
“When I came to Canada, it wasn’t what I tried to pursue,” Ediri said, “but when my husband lost his first business and he needed to get back on his feet, he needed that support. So I concentrated on the female side.”
Though they handle all hair types, the pair has made Afro-textured hair their specialty, which Lucky said helped them draw in underserved customers from up to eight hours away.
“We [have] a lot of clients from all around, cities far and near, because people have been looking for this for the longest time now,” he said.
Still, launching the business in the midst of the pandemic has involved several challenges, including needing to purchase special equipment and clients who have to cancel last-minute if they have any potential virus symptoms. On top of it all, the couple has two kids under the age of four who need daycare and babysitting.
“We are doing okay,” Ediri said. “But I feel like we would have been better with no COVID.”
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