South Bay nail salons struggle amid shutdown, despite new state order
Blossom Nail Spa installed new acrylic shield at manicure stations at its Campbell location. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

When Tina Le first arrived in America in 2003, she took up doing nails as a part-time job. Two years later, she opened a shop in San Jose that she adoringly calls her “second child.”

“I love my job, and I’m very proud of my work,” Le said in an interview. “We are here to take care of our customers and make them feel great.”

But more importantly, she said, nail salons have long been the cornerstone of the Vietnamese community in the South Bay. Like many Viet immigrants, Le has depended on her job in the nail industry to provide for herself and her family. All of the employees at her shop, Nail Elegance, are Vietnamese women who moved to the U.S. recently, Le said. Across California, 80% to 85% of salons are owned or operated by those of Vietnamese descent, according to Nails, the leading industry publication.

“The industry is mainly women-owned. … Vietnamese immigrants, many of them couldn’t speak English well, they still have a successful business. What other small businesses can you say the same here?” said Louie Pham, the owner of Orchid Nail Lounge in Santa Clara.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently praised the industry as “an exit point out of poverty,” but the state’s stay-at-home order has shuttered nail salons since March. Newsom, who said the first case of community spread of COVID-19 was traced back to a nail salon, said salons can reopen Friday under certain restrictions.

Under the new guidance issued for nail salons, customers and nail techs must wear face coverings, maintain six feet between workstations, throw away one-time use items such as nail files and remove nail polish displays, among other rules.

Although the governor announced reopening nail salons, Santa Clara County’s more than 800 nail shops will remain closed because of the county’s more restrictive health order. It’s unclear when Santa Clara County will lift its local restrictions on the nail and beauty industry, as new cases of COVID-19 are emerging, including at recently-opened construction sites. Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody warned reopening too quickly could lead to another surge of infections.

But California has imposed stricter restrictions on the nail industry than other personal service businesses, such as barbershops and hair salons. While hair salons have reopened, nail salons were given no details about when they could return to business.

‘Ready to follow whatever procedures’

Even before the pandemic, the nail industry had already been heavily regulated, Pham said.

“(California) is a strict state on everything in nail shops,” she said.

Nail salon owners are preparing to take new safety measures when they reopen. Many technicians, including Pham and Le, have gotten a COVID-19 certification from Barbicide, a disinfection company in the beauty industry.

“There is a lot of fear and confusion among nail (salon) owners right now,” said Linda Do, who owns Blossom Nail Spa in San Jose and Campbell. “There is a lack of information and a lot of misinformation. People are wondering ‘what happens now?’ ‘who should we trust?’ ‘are we going to make it?’”

Nail shop owner Linda Do has been working with officials on safety protocols for nail salons. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

Do’s shops in 2015 were among the first to register as “Healthy Nail Salons,” a county program that recognizes shops that offer safer products, ventilation and services.

Since the shutdown, Do has been invited by the governor’s office and county officials to provide recommendations on safety protocols for the industry, she said.

“They don’t understand (the challenges) in nail shops; we do,” Do said. “The governor and the county have been working and taking our recommendations. I feel very blessed (for that).”

Do spoke at the county’s special hearing on economic recovery Monday, presenting safety measures planned for her two shops. Do plans to eliminate walk-in options, take the temperature of each customer, practice social distancing, and require frequent hand washing and masks inside the salon. Each station will have an acrylic shield to separate customers from nail technicians.

Anh Bui, owner of Classy Nails in Campbell, said safety is the first priority.

“We are ready to follow whatever protocols that the county and the state issues,” Bui said through a Vietnamese translator. She advocated for additional resources and multilingual guidelines.

Santa Clara County has yet to allow the full reopening of restaurants, hair salons and malls. Pressed by Supervisor Mike Wasserman during Monday’s meeting on plans to move into the next phase of reopening, county officials could not provide a specific date and said they’re relying on a model of five indicators.

Officials said Monday things are unlikely to change in the next three weeks.

“The county is fully committed to helping the nail industry,” Betty Duong, manager of the county’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, told more than 30 nail salon owners on a Zoom call organized by Do and Pham. “We want to create a reasonable guideline where we can ensure the safety of workers and customers. We also want it to be reasonable so that any nail salon could afford to do it.”

Duong said the county will provide enough time between the release of guidelines and a reopening date.

“We want everybody to have the opportunity to open on the same day,” she said.

Shop owners in recent weeks have expressed frustrations with the state’s slow-moving plans, and industry advocates plan to sue the state over the prolonged uncertainty and closures.

“Hair salons have a lot more contacts than nails salons, and there is no separation between the customers and the technicians,” said Mai, co-owner of Perfect 10 Nail Spa in San Jose. “Why are we not on the same level with hair salons? … We feel like we are being discriminated here.”

Santa Clara County officials said California made a distinction between hair salons and nail salons at the state level. “We don’t fully understand that distinction,” Duong said.

The county has scheduled a series of “engagement opportunities” to provide education and preparation for new operating standards, Duong said in a statement to San José Spotlight.

More challenges ahead 

The shutdown isn’t the only threat to the South Bay’s nail shops, many said. Supplies such as gloves, masks and alcohol have become increasingly scarce and expensive to purchase.

“Prices have increased so much for many things we need,” Le said.

Tina Le has installed plexiglass for pedicure stations at her salon Nail Elegance in San Jose. She spent between $4,000 and $5,000 in preparation of the reopening. Photo courtesy of Tina Le.

Le’s shop has installed plexiglass between pedicure stations and acrylic shields for manicure desks, in addition to stocking up on face shields, masks and hand sanitizer. Le estimated she’s spent $4,000 to $5,000 to prepare for reopening.

For Pham and her shop in Santa Clara, installing new safety measures is not a big concern. “The cost of running the business is,” she said. A gallon of alcohol could run up to $125 to $150 during the pandemic, Pham said, and she’s already spent around $3,000.

Without an income for three months, Pham has started tapping into her savings. Her unemployment checks paid for rent in May and June, but she knows it won’t last.

Scheduling and managing personnel is going to be another challenge for nail shops, Le said. With social distancing in place, Le will have to limit the number of customers and cut hours to keep all of her employees.

“When we’re open, clients will come back, and I don’t think I can take everyone,”

Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez said the county could help nail salons access equipment such as masks and gloves.

Since the shutdown, Le has become a stay-at-home wife and helps her two kids with school work.

But her heart still beats for her business. Le said she misses clients and worries about those with various health conditions who rely on her services.

Pham shared that sentiment.

“It’s more than just opening up our businesses … We are dying to service our communities,” Pham said. “We’re missing everybody.”

Contact Tran Nguyen at tran.nguyen@mail.missouri.edu or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

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