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Harpreet Sangha inside her salon, Panache Beauty Salon and Spa, curently closed due to Ontario lockdown restrictions, on May 28, 2021.Sumbul Rafi Khan/The Globe and Mail

As Harpreet Sangha’s shears, combs and blow dryers sat unused for months on end, she clung to the hope that once the Ontario government eased pandemic restrictions and allowed her to reopen her Brampton, Ont., salon, that she’d be as busy as ever seeing clients whose hair and skin were in need of TLC.

Now, Ms. Sangha worries about the future of her business postpandemic – long-time clients have told her that if she won’t break the law to serve them, they’ll go to some of her competitors who have been flouting provincial orders to run underground salons.

“The scary part is we’ve worked for years to build our clientele,” Ms. Sangha says. “When we reopen, we don’t know if they’re going to come back to us or not.”

Beauty and hairstyling is one of the most female-dominated industries in Canada (81 per cent of businesses are women-owned and operated, according to the Beauty United Council) and among the most severely impacted by pandemic-related shutdowns in the past 15 months. In some parts of Ontario, salons have been closed since late November and at least 20 per cent have permanently shut down since the onset of the pandemic, according to the council.

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The restrictions have created a divide in the industry: While businesses such as Ms. Sangha’s have taken a hit, some underground beauticians operating from their basements across the province have been thriving.

A search on Kijiji and Facebook Marketplace brings up multiple pages of at-home salon services, including haircuts, root touch-ups and threading – including an advertisement stating, “I am starting my own little business to work from home as all the salons are closed and are not providing any kind of hair-removal services.”

While frustrating, Ms. Sangha understood the need to adhere to restrictions: She lives in northeastern Brampton’s L6P postal code, a pandemic hot spot that has registered the highest per-capita COVID-19 cases in the province. The salon she co-owns, Panache Beauty Salon & Spa, is located one postal code over.

When Ms. Sangha told them she wouldn’t book illicit appointments, “a lot of our clients got upset,” she said. “We had to explain to these clients, ‘If we don’t follow these lockdown rules, it’s just not good for the world.’”

Since March, 2020, the City of Brampton has received 1,021 complaints about potential violations of pandemic restrictions by non-essential businesses, a category that includes salons. When called to investigate a non-essential business, if officers observe a violation, they educate the business operators about the regulations and occasionally lay charges. In that time, they have investigated and issued 628 charges against businesses – both essential and non-essential. The city could not say how many, if any, salons had been charged.

The origins of Ms. Sangha’s business are similar to the operations that now threaten Panache’s long-term survival. Much like the at-home services that have sprung up during the pandemic, she first started doing hair and aesthetics in 2016, working out of her basement and clients’ homes – a joint venture with two other local women, Amandeep Randhawa and Jalpa Shah. For Ms. Sangha, who had immigrated to Canada in 2003 from India, it was a way to contribute financially to her family of 10.

Ms. Sangha, right, with her partners, Jalpa Shah, middle, and Amandeep Randhawa, left, inside their salon.Sumbul Rafi Khan/The Globe and Mail

At first, the women travelled to clients’ homes across the Greater Toronto Area, working their way up to 16 clients a day. Ms. Sangha opened a small studio in her basement and later, in 2018, the trio opened Panache, a professional licensed salon, together.

Two years later, when the pandemic hit, they were unable to pivot in the way many other non-essential businesses could.

“At least restaurants can still make money with takeout. Retail stores can still make money with online shopping. I know the pandemic has slowed their business, but we just can’t even open,” Ms. Sangha says.

During a temporary lifting of lockdown measures amid an earlier stage of the pandemic last year, the salon was allowed to open and operate with restrictions, but under the current rules, the doors have been closed for months. Ms. Sangha, Ms. Randhawa and Ms. Shah have been on the hook for rent and utilities, the repayment of the bank loan that helped them open their business, as well as expensive tools such as laser hair-removal devices.

“Even if we open with restrictions like before, at least we would be making something,” Ms. Sangha says. “This has really impacted my own life, because I depend on this income.”

In a statement, Stefania Capovilla, a spokesperson for the Ontario Professional Hairstylist Association (OPHA), said in some regions of Ontario, salons have been closed since late November. Government aid to shuttered salons in the form of loans has created added stresses for owners, the statement added.

“Our members who have received the available government loans are very concerned about the repayment schedule, having not [been] able to generate income during these multiple closures,” the statement said.

This week, the OPHA called on the provincial government to allow the sector to reopen in Step 1 of Ontario’s reopening framework, which the province is expected to enter later this month.

Hair stylists and aestheticians have taken to social media, asking why they have suffered extended shutdowns and some of the heaviest restrictions throughout the pandemic when there has been little transmission of COVID-19 at their businesses. In an open letter to Ontario Premier Doug Ford in March, the 10,000-member Beauty United Council of Ontario called for the province to reopen the beauty industry, which the group pointed out already had strict infection protocols and other safety procedures in place even prior to the pandemic.

One-third of the occupational outbreaks in Peel Region, where Ms. Sangha’s salon is located, have been in manufacturing and industrial workplaces – which were deemed essential at the start of the pandemic and have been able to carry on normal operations with few restrictions.

In a statement, the province said its decision-making has been guided by public-health experts and that COVID-19 restrictions, including those imposed on salons, were “designed to reduce mobility and limit the risk of transmission in order to stabilize and protect our health care system.”

For Ms. Sangha, the losses are more than just financial.

Panache is embraced as a social hub in the neighbourhood – a place where clients can speak to beauticians in their native languages, including Punjabi, Hindi and Gujarati.

“It’s more than a salon – it’s like a family. I have such a nice time at work,” Ms. Sangha says. “We come, get the job done, but we also just talk. I miss them.”

With a report from Dakshana Bascaramurty

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