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March 3, 2021

Beauty-industry workers sue state officials, saying they’ve been unfairly targeted during shutdowns

Jennifer Wadsworth and Mat Weir, Contributing Reporters

If you ask beauty salon owners in Santa Cruz County, they’ll tell you the on-and-off lockdowns during the pandemic have been downright backward when it comes to their industry. 

Deborah Riley, owner of Lavish Salon in Santa Cruz, says salons are cleaner and more sanitary than many of the grocery and retail stores that were allowed to remain open. 

“How can you open a place like Walmart where they don’t do temperature checks and employees aren’t trained in sanitation?” she asked. “Even at a limited capacity, we were not allowed to open our doors time and time again.”

It’s a feeling shared by Vanessa Love, owner of Heads Up in Felton. 

“We are fined a huge amount of money if inspectors find a single hair on a brush,” Love said. “Anyone can be a stylist, but we go to school to learn sanitation.” 

The most recent lockdown in early December hit the beauty industry hard again, slashing earnings for hairstylists, manicurists, aestheticians, massage therapists, plastic surgeons, barbers, herbalists and massage therapists.

Last week’s announcement that Gov. Gavin Newsom was relaxing pandemic-related business restrictions—effective immediately—brought some relief. But this was a trying year for Love. 

She had only recently opened Heads Up in November 2019, a mere four months before the first shutdown. Along with the other two subsequent industry shutdowns she had to make, she also had to close her business and evacuate her home during last summer’s CZU Lightning Complex fire. Through it all, she considers herself lucky. She says she has no employees, her landlord has been understanding, and many of her clients, family and friends would pay her advances for future appointments to make sure she could stay afloat.

Still, she says the lack of help from the government on the federal and state levels was astonishing, and she was finally approved to receive unemployment only recently.  

“I was only approved for a loan, which I didn’t take because why would I want to owe the government more money?” she asks. 

Split Ends

In a lawsuit filed Jan. 21 against Newsom and other state officials, the Professional Beauty Federation of California (PBFC) argues California singled out the industry because of its lack of lobbying power.

“The personal services sectors are the quintessential small business sectors,” PBFC attorney Fred Jones says, “and yet, because we don’t have the same clout as Hollywood or big business, we have become the sacrificial lambs to the Covid gods.”

It’s a sacrifice borne disproportionately by minorities, he points out.

The state’s assiduous focus on salons and cosmetic services has hammered an industry composed overwhelmingly of women, immigrants and members of the LGBTQ community. Of PBFC’s 621,000 dues-paying licensees, Jones says, more than 80% are female and 75% are first-generation immigrants.

“This is the profession that this governor has sacrificed,” he says. “That’s not very politically correct, is it?”

In Jones’ telling, the industry’s financial woes began when Newsom blamed a Northern California nail salon for the first known case of community spread of the novel coronavirus. PBFC, reporters and other industry groups demanded data to support the assertion. State officials never provided that.

Newsom’s claim proved baseless. But the damage was done.

“What he didn’t realize was that he was throwing all this shade at our industry in the minds of Californians,” Jones says. “As a result, we’ve had a cumulative seven months of lockdowns. This is our third reopening after our third closure since March, and every time we reopen there are less clients coming back, because they’re picking up the message that this industry is unsafe.”

Rules for Thee

The PBFC lawsuit, which includes restaurant owners as plaintiffs, argues that lobbying money influenced the state’s double standard for certain industries. 

When California initially defined what work it considered essential enough to continue at the start of the pandemic, it excluded Hollywood studios. A month later, the lawsuit points out, a new state order deemed “the entertainment industries, studios, and other related establishments” to be essential “provided they follow Covid-19 public health guidance around physical distancing.”

In November, Newsom carved out another exemption from his pre-Thanksgiving shelter-in-place order for TV and film production companies, allowing them to operate throughout the night instead of having to abide by the 10pm-to-5am curfew. 

In early December, Los Angeles temporarily shut down a major coronavirus testing site to accommodate film crews shooting a remake of She’s All That starring a TikTok star named Addison Rae. Roughly 500 testing appointments were canceled. Public scrutiny over the decision prompted the city’s mayor to intervene and reopen the testing station. 

Meanwhile, the lawsuit goes on to state, Angela Marsden—owner of Pineapple Hill, one of the restaurant plaintiffs named in the case—posted a video of a film production setup allowed to stay open when her own outdoor dining patio was ordered to close. 

“Ms. Marsden’s video went viral,” the lawsuit states. “In her video, Ms. Marsden displays the hypocrisy, lunacy and total disparity between her own socially distanced outdoor setup at her establishment juxtaposed by a similarly situated setup containing outdoor tents and chairs associated with the NBC Universal production set for the series ‘Good Girls,’ which was allowed to proceed as essential work. In addition, hairstylists and makeup artists are explicitly allowed to perform their State Board of Barbering and Cosmetology licensed services in these Hollywood studios, while those same licensed professionals are prevented from doing the same services in a non-Hollywood studio salon.”

PBFC’s lawsuit calls the disparate treatment a direct result of the entertainment industry’s political influence. 

“The disparity in exemptions … is causally related to state officials, such as Newsom, supporting their campaign donors at the expense of small businesses and has nothing to do with science and data,” the complaint reads.

Of course, the lawsuit mentions Newsom’s infamous French Laundry fête, in which the governor was caught hobnobbing with influence peddlers for Netflix lobbyist Jason Kinney’s swanky birthday bash. Netflix, the complaint notes, has been allowed to operate during the latest round of closures—even as intensive care units filled to the brink and hospital capacity dwindled throughout the state. 

“It is no secret,” the lawsuit reads, “that Hollywood lobbyists and insiders have leveraged their industry’s economic and political contributions to the state’s political powerbrokers and Democratic machine in order to insulate it from Covid-19 related regulations.”

Newsom’s office has yet to respond to a request for comment on the case. 

Proof Positive

While state officials and their local counterparts repeated the narrative of the dangers inherent to salons, research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggested otherwise. The study published last summer found face masks may have prevented a pair of Covid-positive Missouri hairstylists from spreading the virus to as many as 140 clients.

Missouri’s Springfield-Greene County Health Department, which led the investigation, determined that policies requiring people to cover mouths and noses and the salon’s strict sanitation policies played a substantial role in curbing what could have been a huge outbreak.

Jen Erickson, founder and CEO of Silicon Valley Apprenticeship Barbering/Cosmetology and a 25-year industry veteran, says clients should rest assured that salons are safe to patronize. Passing the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology test requires 1,600 class-hours—about 1,000 more than needed to become a cop—and fluency in sterilization and cross-contamination.

“With the pandemic,” she said, “a lot of us even went above and beyond, retrofitting salons to make things safe, spending money even though we weren’t making any.”

For the first time, Erickson says, she took out a business loan—a 30-year mortgage to sustain her training program.  

“I’m not making any money right now,” she said. “I’m trying to work with students to find them other places to work, but it’s tough. Salons have shut down. I’ve lost apprentices—almost a third of them got pregnant and quit. And me, myself, I’m at a standstill.”

If public health officials produced data that showed salons as high-risk for coronavirus outbreaks, that would be one thing, Jones says. But he has yet to see that data from the state or local governments. What few numbers are available seem to back his suspicions about the shutdowns being less science-and-data-based than Newsom lets on.

Statistics released last month by the New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office show that 74% of Covid-19 cases for which there’s contact-tracing data available were attributed to household gatherings. Bars and restaurants accounted for just 1.43% of the spread. Salons and personal care services, just 0.14%.

Jones wants to see similar California data.

Riley—a PBFC member but not part of the lawsuit—says prior to March 2020, Lavish was “riding high,” with a full-time dedicated staff and a long waitlist of clients. All that quickly changed after the first shutdown.

“When we came back I was devastated,” she said, recalling five of her employees didn’t return.  

“It was a financial blow to us and many more clients were too scared to come in.” 

Like Love, Riley says her landlord was “very gracious and understanding” during this time. However, she was able to receive the PPP grant to pay employees and spent over $4,000 of her own money remodeling the salon to be compliant with new, Covid-friendly regulations. She also had to take out a $14,000 Small Business Administration loan. 

As the shutdowns continued, more and more employees left—either Santa Cruz, the industry, or both. This forced Lavish to transition from a formerly full-service salon to exclusively hair services when it reopened this week. 

Riley says that at times it felt like law-abiding salons were often being punished while so many stylists in the county continued their business illegally. Riley says “probably a third” of the salons in Santa Cruz remained opened, covering their windows with butcher paper or drawing the curtains to detract attention.

“We all found out the police weren’t really enforcing it, but I couldn’t do that,” she adds. “I felt that by doing it in hiding, that was me telling the world, ‘I don’t care if people get sick and die,’ and I couldn’t do that.”

While Riley and Love are excited to be back behind the clippers, both are also hesitant to see what happens next, and don’t know what they will do if another shutdown is enacted. 

“What are they preventing? Obviously the numbers still went up despite shutdowns,” Love said. “The data’s not improving.”

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