Reopening hair salons, spas, and other beauty businesses probably won’t be as difficult as you’d assume

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Ora, a new acupuncture spa in New York City, had only been open for a week in March before the outbreak of COVID-19 prompted an economic shutdown.

We had our opening event and were seeing a great number of appointments being scheduled,” says Ora founder Kim Ross. “However, when social distancing measures were put in place, we, of course, adhered to them and had to quickly close and make arrangements for clients virtually.”

Now that some regions and countries are beginning to lift their lockdowns, questions about how to maintain and regulate social distancing remain. Much like restaurateurs and bar directors, wellness and beauty business owners are asking government officials for clearer guidance on how to reopen salons properly. But given how slow federal agencies have been to provide coherent guidance, many salon managers are proactively planning, discussing, and collaborating on how to safely prepare for reopening. 

In contrast to restaurants and bars, reopening beauty and wellness businesses could go a lot smoother and a lot faster. Despite the obvious requirement of aestheticians needing to be physically close to their clients, salons might be better optimized for social distancing. Stylists can move chairs apart more freely, customers are seated and treated individually, not crowded around a communal table or bar. And seeing a hairdresser in a face mask isn’t as off-putting as seeing one on a server. (The latter example has some fine-dining establishments understandably concerned about ruining the ambiance).

Ora offers a modern twist on the traditional acupuncture clinic, with a Rockwell Group–designed space (the same firm behind the Equinox Hotel) and a tea and tonic bar in the waiting room upon entry.
Phoebe Cheong Photography

Still, while the unintended spread of infection is not new to the world of beauty salons and medical spas, the presence of COVID-19 has raised the bar for cleanliness to an unprecedented level. This is especially relevant to hairdressers, nail technicians, aestheticians, and massage therapists who do not have the luxury of distancing themselves from their clients or working behind plexiglass.

“If beauty professionals are to return to their jobs and work in an environment that is safe for staff and clients alike, significant changes will need to take place, representing a shift to a new norm or 2.0 version of the industry from which we may never go back,” says Jeff Alford, president of the CBON Group, a distributor of salon and spa industry products across North America. “This transformative change will come with a need for significant investment, retraining, and repurposing of salons and spas for a new life in the age of coronavirus and future outbreaks.”

Alford stresses it will be critical to disinfect all client touch points, including workstations, treatment furniture, counters, waiting areas, and bathrooms. He suggests this activity should take place between each appointment and be allowed the requisite contact time, which can be anywhere from three to 10 minutes. However, he warns that not all disinfectants are the same, and salons and spa owners should undertake a full investigation of the options; some are accompanied by harsh side effects through prolonged exposure like eye and skin irritation or respiratory issues.

“The new salon ‘infection prevention practitioner’ will need to become very familiar with precautionary label language, correct usage, compatibility issues to ensure germs, bacteria, and viruses are being appropriately removed from their facilities,” Alford explains.

At the Rita Hazan salon, potential new protective measures include taking temperatures of both clients and staff prior to walking in, social distancing between chairs, cutting appointment occupancy in half, and requiring payment and tips be made virtually, versus being handed to the staff by card or cash.
Courtesy of Rita Hazan Salon

Ora had a small skeleton staff to begin with as it had just opened, and Ross says she took a lot of measures to keep the team involved for as long as possible despite the circumstances: “I think all small-business owners can agree that no one could have predicted that the shutdown would last as long as it has.”

The good news for Ora, according to its founder, is that acupuncture, as a practice, is based on sterility in terms of how the treatment is performed. Ora acupuncturists are highly-trained, Ross underscores, and part of that training is an intense focus on providing the most sanitized tools and experience possible, which includes constant handwashing and no skin-to-skin contact.

Moving toward reopening, Ross stresses remaining “hyper-focused” on providing that same extreme level of cleanliness and personalized care that accommodates those clients harboring higher levels of anxiety and strain after living through a global crisis, with some updates to accommodate a post-COVID world.

Booking appointments during the first wave of reopenings will be staggered to ensure that no groups congregate in the waiting area, and clients will be welcomed to situate themselves in their treatment rooms as they arrive should they wish to avoid the public areas entirely. Acupuncturists will be provided with personal protective equipment (PPE)—including masks, gloves, eyewear, booties for shoes, and specialty in-space-only uniforms that will be kept in the workplace and not worn out on the street. The entire space will be sanitized thoroughly, and the tea and tonic bar will be open to patrons only, encouraging beverages to be taken “to-go” to maintain social distancing protocols. Ora will also be expanding its health care coverage and sick leave policies.

All clients will be asked to wear masks, and masks will be provided if needed. Ora will also provide gloves to customers if they wish to shop retail offerings in the space, and temperatures will be taken and checked upon entry. Ora plans to launch a proprietary app soon, which will allow for contactless checkout and for all digital forms to be filled out ahead of time to make sure nothing is passed between two people at any point.

Heyday says it will become “exponentially more communicative” about updated policies and practices, sharing information about disinfectant products and protective equipment, such as face shields and face masks used by the brand’s skin therapists.
Courtesy of Heyday

Face masks before facial masks

Prior to COVID-19 and the temporary closure of its 11 locations, Heyday was thriving. With numerous shop openings and various brand collaborations planned, the mini chain of skin-care spas had anticipated its strongest year yet as a business. 

Once it became clear that all nonessential business were going to need to close indefinitely, making physical arrangements was the easy part, from sanitizing the shops before closure as quickly as possible, and later, rounding up remaining PPE for local medical donations when those supplies were in short supply. “The most thoughtful and planned work came around communication, both internally and externally, to try to answer as many questions as possible that we knew were running through people’s minds,” says Michael Pollak, cofounder and chief experience officer of Heyday. “We always put ourselves in the shoes of our audience, but the anxieties were heightened around that period.”

Heyday is still finalizing how it plans to reopen. Among the proposed methods being worked out include issuing health questionnaires to discern any symptoms or exposure to those with symptoms (for both team members and for customers prior to appointments); only accepting appointments and no walk-in traffic for retail or services; implementing a text-message service between the front desk and clients for arrival notifications; and simple but effective changes to the physical space, such as touch-less hand sanitizers, acrylic separators between the front desk and clientele, and foot-pedal door openers to limit surface touching.

“We are still working through this, but we will continue to lean into our goal of making skin care accessible,” Pollak says. “Through the pause, we’ve had the opportunity to make some upgrades to our services and delivery of them, and look forward to delivering high-quality treatments at an affordable level for our clients.”

“As a person-to-person service business, we have always maintained the highest of standards when it comes to cleanliness and hygiene within our shops,” says Michael Pollak, cofounder and chief experience officer of Heyday.
Courtesy of Heyday

Rita Hazan, founder of the Rita Hazan salon on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, says her salon was always steady with clients, and it was very busy (if not almost overbooked) right up to the shutdown with customers preparing for the holidays and travel plans surrounding Passover, Easter, and spring break. 

The management team decided to close down the salon on March 15, a week earlier than what was mandated by the State of New York. Hazan says she personally felt it was important to keep her staff and clients safe. Thus, the team started to cancel appointments, offering customers custom color kits—which included their unique color formulas, gloves, bottles for color, bowls, and professional application brushes—alongside directions and a tutorial made for them. The team ended up deep-cleaning the entire salon before it closed, for what was assumed would only be two weeks. 

“It is always a priority to have our salon remain immaculate and clean,” Hazan says. “But now we will be even more cautious and will ensure the salon is deep-cleaned and sanitized before we reopen each day and in between each appointment.”

To help gather input from all possible parties—staff, clients, and even other salon owners—Hazan posted to her personal Instagram feed to get candid insights on the policies that should be put in place to make revisiting the salon comfortable. “The insight that was gathered was totally aligned with what we had been planning for,” she says, noting suggestions included leaving front doors open to avoid touching extra surfaces, payments made over the phone or virtually (and absolutely no cash), partitions between each station, and, of course, PPE consisting of face shields for technicians as well as disposable robes and capes for customers.

“The salon business is one of the most personal businesses of one-on-one interaction, so we have to be extremely careful when reopening for both our staff and clients,” Hazan says. 

However, as much as business owners might want to reassure customers that experiences will be just as close to normal (and just as valuable) as they were pre-pandemic, customers will need to adjust their expectations. Multiple salon owners said they will be closing off their waiting areas altogether, asking patrons to wait outside before appointments, which could be problematic in inclement weather. At Rita Hazan, clients will be asked to come in with the least amount of items during their appointment, including refraining from bringing large shopping bags and personal items, such as purses or jackets. But these measures, too, could prove to be difficult if customers are trying to fit in appointments between meetings during a workday—say, while carrying a large briefcase or laptop bag—or into the winter months when wearing a large coat is unavoidable.

Some amenities will also be changed—if not discontinued altogether. If clients are coming in for a haircut at Rita Hazan, they will be asked to come in with their hair already clean and wet, ready to be cut, to ensure less contact. Staff will be sanitizing each station in between appointments, but if clients feel more comfortable bringing in their own tools and products, the staff will accommodate that request. And complimentary beverages—a previously available perk of the salon—will be offered in disposable cups, if the service is continued at all. 

Ahead of reopening, Alchemy 43 founder Nicci Levy says some of the top requests she has received from clients have included tips and tricks to maintain their regimens at home; to be added to a priority waiting list for appointments after reopening; and simply, to “reopen ASAP.”
Courtesy of Alchemy 43

“My business has been open for 15 years, and my clients know how important cleanliness in my salon was, even before this pandemic,” Hazan says. “Now it’s my time to go far beyond and keep everyone safe upon returning to this ‘new normal.’”

On the rebound

Prior to closing its doors in March, Alchemy 43, an aesthetics bar with multiple locations across Los Angeles and New York, specializing in cosmetic micro-treatments such as Botox and Juvéderm, was thriving with increased revenue both month over month and year over year. 

And also like many other service-oriented businesses, Alchemy 43 had to furlough most of its employees, which founder and CEO Nicci Levy admits was hard, but, she adds, the business was fortunate enough to keep a few staff needed for the shutdown period. The company maintained health care coverage for furloughed staff and will continue to do so through reopening.

“As a CEO and founder, I had to make quick and tough decisions and, at the same time, create solutions that would essentially keep the company moving forward during these uncertain times,” says Levy. “I believed it was very important to pivot quickly and not lose connection with our team, which is why I personally kept in touch and have continued to provide regular updates to them during the forward process of modified reopenings.”

Leaning on local guidelines and mandates under the instruction of New York– and California-based medical directors, Alchemy 43 will be implementing new procedures that the company says will abide by government regulations on top of existing medical standards already in place. The company is developing what Levy describes as a “structured environment” of social distancing measures, organized by stickers on the floor denoting proper distances between clients.

A hairdresser takes the temperature of a client in Molfetta, Italy, on May 18, the date of reopening for beauty salons, hairdressers, and barbers, with due protocols and safety measures to be respected.
Davide Pischettola/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Needless to say, virtually everyone in the industry is suffering—at least financially—from the pandemic. Hairdressers in other countries, from New Zealand to Italy, starting to reopen saw a rush on appointments immediately. But if salons and spas adhere to strict social distancing policies, they are not going to be able to accommodate as many clients at one time as they could before the pandemic. With business down for several weeks and counting, and possibly a slow restart ahead, customers may be concerned about businesses attempting to recoup losses through price hikes. 

At this stage, Alchemy 43 says it has no plans to increase pricing. “From day one, I have been committed to ensuring that Alchemy 43 delivers a competitive, fair pricing model that is both simple for the client and lends itself to the best treatment outcomes,” Levy says. She remains optimistic that the salon will be able to bring back most, if not all, employees when it launches a modified reopen to meet client demand, and that pent-up demand will help the medical spa bounce back to a road toward growth throughout the remainder of the year and into 2021.

“We will move forward with ways to make everyone in the situation the most comfortable, from private rooms to PPE to less salon volume,” says Rita Hazan. “We know that clients are very excited to get back in the chair as soon as possible.”
Courtesy of Rita Hazan Salon

“I, personally, do not believe this is the time to raise costs at the salon,” Hazan says. “Everyone is suffering in their own ways, and we want to remain loyal and compassionate to our existing and new clients. I do not believe that raising service costs will help to make up for what was lost, and believe that if we can move forward and restart we will get further.” Hazan says the salon will even offer price adjustments to its long-standing clients until they get back on their feet, whether their current hardships be the result of illness, pay cuts, or unemployment. 

As a small business that is brand-new, Ross says Ora is still in the process of exploring different price points. She adds Ora will also be offering free treatments for hospital workers, to serve as a thank-you for their efforts on the front line during this pandemic.

“If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we’re all vulnerable in different ways physically and emotionally,” Ross says. “Many of our clients have requested help around building proactive measures they can implement at home, to carry with them as things begin to return to normal.”

Pollak says Heyday’s most loyal clients are very eager to visit again: “We know this from the outpouring of inbounds that we’ve received to the tune of, ‘I can’t wait to get a facial—it’s going to be one of the first things I do.’ Our community knows that when the time is right to reopen, they trust us full-heartedly to take the necessary precautions to ensure their safety in our shops.”

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