Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support our critical reporting on the coronavirus by purchasing a digital subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.
PORTLAND, Maine — Two days before Rachel Helm could reopen her Portland hair salon under strict safety guidelines, she shelled out $300 worth of cleaning supplies she ordered online.
In a pandemic, those supplies could take weeks to arrive, and she still needs to get face masks, shields, gloves and gowns before she can cut anyone’s hair.
Maine is among roughly a dozen states to partially reopen select non-essential businesses during the coronavirus pandemic. About half of those states are including personal care-services where workers and clients come into close contact — like barber shops and hair salons — to reopen in the first phase, observing social distancing guidelines.
State officials released a checklist of rigorous safety protocols for personal services like hair salons and barber shops to adhere to before re-open on May 1. The state’s checklist requires barbers to use disposable gloves, gowns, drapes, linens and eye coverings between each client, making it more restrictive than those issued in Colorado and Montana.
Many Maine barbers and salon owners are finding them so burdensome that they are puzzled the state would expect them to open at all. Helm, who owns a hair salon called Pageboy on Market Street, believes it’s still too early — many of her colleagues agree — and following the safety protocols adds labor and “crippling” overhead costs.
“I’m going to be shelling out a ton of money just to meet those guidelines,” she said. “Being able to make the money I was making before is impossible.”
This week, Helm wrote a letter to Gov. Janet Mills protesting the state’s decision to include barbers and hair stylists in the first wave of businesses to reopen. The letter was signed by five other salon owners around the state, saying many in the industry are “feeling the urge to rush into unsafe situations.” A spokesperson for Maine’s economic development department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
It also noted that the day certain personal services would re-open is also the first day that salon workers, many of whom are self-employed, would be eligible for benefits under the federal pandemic unemployment assistance program.
Maine’s four-phased plan to reopen the economy does not require businesses to open the dates on its timeline. Many self-employed and temporary workers are eligible for pandemic unemployment assistance benefits if their workplaces remain closed due to the virus.
“Whether morally or financially we have to make a decision, and if we make the moral decision we’re potentially screwing ourselves,” Helm said.
Wayne Wood was gunning to open his Machias barber shop on Friday, but that effort was frustrated after he wrangled with the demands of the checklist. Wood cuts hair in Washington County, a region of Maine with two COVID-19 cases confirmed by the CDC, far from the outbreaks in Cumberland County.
He plans to be in compliance when he opens, he said, but he’s having trouble sourcing necessary supplies, like disposable capes and smocks, without breaking the budget. Seeking a workaround, Wood bought a box of 30-gallon garbage bags this morning. He plans to cut them open and utilize them as gowns, fitting them over customers while they sit in the chair.
“I think my customers will all respond pretty well,” he said. “Nobody has a choice in this.”
Watch: Janet Mills outlines her plan to reopen