As Businesses Reopen, a Salon Owner Finds Herself ‘On the Front Line’ of COVID-19

A deserted highway leading to the city of Atlanta, April 2020 .

With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, Lauren Reyes is more than a little apprehensive about reopening her hair salon, located in an Atlanta shopping mall. But she said Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s (R) April 20 decision to allow some nonessential businesses in the state to reopen leaves her no choice.

“If we choose to stay closed for the sake of our health and our families’ health, we risk losing our clientele. If we reopen for our clients, we put ourselves at risk,” she said, explaining the dilemma she and other Georgia small-business owners face.

Reyes, 34, plans to reopen her salon later this week donning a face mask and wielding an infrared thermometer to greet clients. She shut down her small hair salon in mid-March, about a month before the state government required her to. She worried about falling ill and bringing the coronavirus home to her husband and 11-year-old stepdaughter.

Gov. Kemp didn’t get around to issuing an executive order closing all but essential businesses in the state until April 2— a move taken weeks earlier in many other states. Last week, Kemp made the controversial decision to let Georgia hair salons and barbershops, bowling alleys, health clubs, and tattoo and massage parlors to reopen. This week, customers in the state can begin returning to movie theaters, restaurants, and private social clubs.

The reopening makes Georgia a test case: It’s the first state in the nation to lift orders temporarily shutting businesses to keep COVID-19 at bay. Kemp is taking the action despite warnings from some health officials that he risks worsening the spread of the coronavirus in the state by doing so.

Like so many, Reyes doesn’t understand why it’s necessary to end the shelter-in-place protocol that seemed to be limiting the spread of the virus.

“It’s like you start feeling better so you stop taking your antibiotics, which we know will get you sicker in the long run,” she said.

She’d like to remain closed for another month, but that’s simply not an option now that the state government has asserted that it’s safe to start working again.

“The owner of my building had waived our rent. We had had different payments deferred like my car payments, business loans, things like that,” she said. With the new order permitting those businesses to resume, Reyes explains, “We lose those financial benefits.”

Reyes applied for Small Business Administration funds passed by Congress but did not receive a response. In her professional circle, she said, “I don’t know a single hairdresser that’s received any of the small-business loans or grants or any of those things.”

The call by some leaders for a rapid reopening of the U.S. economy as the country surpassed 1 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 has led to charges that they value livelihoods over lives. Reyes suspects Kemp’s drive to open the state’s businesses is so he can end unemployment payments to idled workers and avoid raising taxes.

“How do you tell someone, it’s okay if you get sick, it’s okay if you die, because it will keep me from having to raise taxes, which is better for me, which is better for [President Donald Trump] getting reelected?” she asked.

Reyes has set a May 1 date for her salon reopening, provided she can find the needed personal protective materials for customers and staff members, as required under new state guidelines, including the mandated infrared thermometers that appear to be in short supply.

“They want us to take the temperatures of our clients … They want us to have masks and they want our clients to have masks and those materials just aren’t readily available,” she said.

According to Reyes, most of the hairdressers that she knows have decided to remain closed for as long as they can. “We have all come together and agreed that we’re no good if we’re dead. We’re no good if we’re sick.”

She muses that hairdressers have now joined the ranks of postal workers, package delivery workers, grocery store employees, and others, whose vital work often is underpaid and undervalued but nevertheless deemed “essential.”

“We’re the front line of the second wave,” said Reyes, speculating that she and other salon owners along with their customers will be at the epicenter of a fresh coronavirus outbreak. “I think it’s clear how little our lives matter to the people in office.”

 Stephanie Griffith is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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