Haircuts and pedicures on Santa Clara sidewalks raise new challenges
Sean Nguyen, owner of Sean's Barber Shop in Santa Clara, took his first appointment Tuesday since the shutdown in March. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Sean Nguyen finally picked up his electric razor again.

“It feels weird to be honest,” Nguyen said Tuesday after finishing his first appointment since March. “But at least I got a client.”

A barber with 13 years of experience, Nguyen was in high demand. His shop, Sean’s Barber Shop, always had “a line of people waiting” but that changed when California shuttered thousands of salons due to the coronavirus four months ago.

On Tuesday, Nguyen and his wife Louie Pham, who owns Orchid Nail Lounge, were among the salon owners who reopened outdoors in Santa Clara County. Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday announced hair salons, barbershops, nail salons, massage parlors and other personal care services can operate outdoors only in counties on the state monitoring list.

Santa Clara County briefly opened its hair and nail salons for indoor operations last Monday for 48 hours before they were shuttered again because the county landed on the monitoring list for a high number of COVID-19 transmissions and hospitalizations.

Both Pham and Nguyen’s shops, located in a Santa Clara shopping center with a sidewalk and street parking spaces, set up chairs and tables on the sidewalk, equipped with hand sanitizers, personal protective equipment and thermometers. Pham’s customers sat 6 feet apart from each other.

According to guidance issued by Newsom, employees must use disposable gloves, single-use applicators, hand sanitizer, refrain from handshakes and hugs and wear masks the entire time.

“It has been a hard day,” Pham said, adding that her phone has been ringing nonstop with new appointments. “It’s definitely a learning curve.”

Until this week, restrictive mandates kept salons from returning to work while other industries resumed. Local hair stylists and nail technicians said they were willing to work with health officials to ensure safety, but were forced to wait for months without guidelines or a reopening date.

Despite allowing the personal care industry to operate outdoors, as many as 95% of salons can’t reopen because they lack access to sidewalks, parking spaces or patios, according to the Professional Beauty Federation of California.

Orchid Nail Lounge is one among few shops reopened outdoors Tuesday after Gov. Newsom released new guidelines for salons. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Pham is working with county officials to keep other shop owners informed of the ever-changing guidelines. She posted a video on Facebook detailing safety protocols at her shop Monday night.

“Many are calling me to ask, because there’s no guideline of how this is going to look like,” she said. “We are all clueless.”

Nguyen and Pham said they’re lucky to work again, but business won’t be sustainable outdoors for long. Services are limited, per the state’s guidelines, and setting up workstations outside takes “a great deal of time,” Pham said. Nguyen’s client sat in an armchair Tuesday.

“I’d break my back if I try to move the barber chair in and out every day,” Nguyen said.

Weather is also a concern. If it gets too hot, the heat could alter the chemicals in nail solutions, making it difficult for Pham to craft acrylic nails. Windy and rainy conditions could also complicate working conditions, Nguyen said.

“For now, this gets us somewhere,” he said. “But when it’s winter, I don’t know how this is going to work.”

Donning a pair of gloves, a mask, a face shield and a paper gown, Nguyen welcomed his first customer back Tuesday afternoon outside of his now empty hair salon.

“Do I look like a doctor?” Nguyen joked.

His client, Anthony, has been a regular the last three years. He said he was surprised to see Nguyen’s shop open again this week. Anthony didn’t provide his last name.

“I was gelling it, slicking it, combing it––everything, to try to make it work,” Anthony said of his long hair. “I’m super picky with it, and only this guy can touch it.”

Under the shade of a newly-purchased tent, Pham also caught up with clients, whose names she knew by heart.

“They are like my family,” Pham said.

Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on twitter.

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