In March, Trenicia Rivers had to close the doors to her Adore Me Hair Studio in Oak Park, which she’s owned and operated since 2016.

Taleatha Wallace hasn’t touched a head in months. Once the Illinois stay-at-home order mandated that her beauty shop, AJ Styles Barber and Beauty Salon in Galewood, shut down on March 20, she was forced out of work. 

As a 42-year-old licensed hair stylist, Wallace has had to depend on the sole income of her 20-year-old daughter, who’s been working at Krispy Kreme Donuts for three years and working her way up to a management position at its Hillside location. 

Wallace was one of 12 self-contracted hair stylists and barbers who worked out of AJ Styles Barber and Beauty Salon. Before COVID-19, Wallace said a stylist or a barber could bring home between $400 to $700 per week, depending on how many clients they saw each day and how many hours they worked. 

Once the COVID-19 pandemic turned hair salons and barbershops into non-essential businesses, stylists and barbers have had to sit on the sidelines while their customers went unattended, unstyled, and in most cases, unhappy.  

“This is detrimental, and it is a great sacrifice,” Wallace said. “[For] most of the barbers and stylists [working] at AJ Styles, [this] was their only means of income.”

However, Wallace doesn’t agree with licensed hair professionals who have been styling heads at home during the pandemic. She and staff at AJ Styles have all agreed to not style clients at their homes, she said. 

“We are just all afraid to consider taking people into our homes,” Wallace said. “It’s hard enough just going to the grocery store these days. Taking people into your home during this pandemic as a professional is very scary.”

As Mayor Lori Lightfoot prepares to move Chicago into phase three of her “Protecting Chicago” framework, hair salons and barbershops across the city will reopen on June 3. During phase 3, which city officials refer to as a cautious reopening of businesses with capacity limits and safety guidelines, more than 130,000 Chicagoans will return to work. 

On Tuesday (May 26), the city released industry-specific safety guidelines for businesses, employees and customers to follow when they reopen during phase 3. For the hair industry, some of the new guidelines include ensuring all shampoo bowls, hair drying stations and other work areas allow for 6-feet social distancing, limiting capacity inside the business to 25%, mandating that face coverings are worn by all employees and clients at all times, machine washing aprons and capes after each client or using disposable aprons and capes, cleaning and sanitizing all equipment and products after each use, increasing airflow inside the salon and more. (For the full list of COVID-19 safety guidelines by industry, click here).

Chicago’s new safety guidelines dropped two days after two hairstylists at Great Clips in Springfield, Missouri tested positive for COVID-19, possibly exposing more than 140 clients to the virus. Both hairstylists worked at the salon while exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, according to BuzzFeed News

During a Wednesday (May 27) press call with Chicago’s Deputy Mayor Samir Mayekar and Illinois Retail Merchants Association (IRMA) Vice President Tanya Triche, both agreed that safety was paramount in the creation of the city’s industry guidelines, especially for services that work intimately with clients such as hair salons and barbershops. 

“It was a tough conversation to have because that’s frankly a challenge for salons financially to not be able to offer all the services that they’d like,” Triche said about certain services that salons won’t be able to offer, including full faces of makeup and beard grooming, because those services require the removal of face coverings.

“What was more important to them [salon owners] was not that only the people who work in the salons feel safe but that their clients feel safe as well,” Triche explained. “So they are willing to give on that to make sure that safety is the priority.”

Hair as history

According to the state’s current stay-at-home order, in effect until May 30, salons and barbershops do not provide essential needs such as groceries, sanitation and personal protective equipment, energy, technology or the production and distribution of necessities. Because of this, they are labeled non-essential businesses. 

However, Black folks have always considered haircare to be essential. Dating back to 15th-century Africa, hair maintenance was synonymous with beauty. Hairstyles often indicated a person’s ethnic background, tribal affiliation, marital status and rank in society. 

During slavery, according to BBC, some Africans brought their hairstyles and combs to the U.S. with them. On Sundays, they spent time braiding each other’s hair, a style that would last for the week of work. Also, according to Vice, headwraps were a required accessory for Black people in some American cities because it indicated that they were a part of the enslaved class — whether they were free or not. 

It wasn’t until 1906 when Black inventors, like Madam CJ Walker, made clear the importance of haircare for Black people by providing specially made products for the coarseness and thickness of what later became coined in America as “Black hair.”

As decades passed, the culture of Black hair evolved into afros, blowouts, Jheri Curls and more, serving as a source of Black freedom, style, individuality and resistance to conformity. Our grandparents and parents handed down traditions of Sunday service press-and-curls, twisted ponytails with barrettes and tightly styled bangs that left grease residue on the top of the forehead. 

Beauty supplies are staples in the Black community. Many closed down in March when the state entered a mandatory stay-at-home order because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Western Beauty Supply at 22 S. Western Ave. in Chicago is now open | Photo by Darius Griffin [The TRiiBE]

These traditions of hairstyles and hair care have become a part of Black families. Andrea Moore can attest to this. The 28-year-old Maywood resident recalls her childhood days of her mother and grandmother doing her hair in the kitchen. She would sit next to the stove as her mother or grandmother, depending on who’s turn it was, took a sizzling hot comb off the burner and ran it through her greasy hair. Before every school picture day and holiday, this routine was tradition. 

“I remember how that Blue Magic grease would smell up the whole house the night before picture day,” said Moore. “You knew when you saw that grease and comb on the table and that straightening comb on that fire, momma was ready to do some hair.”

Because Moore grew up in a household where haircare was a priority and a moment for quality family time, she loves to experiment with her hair. She’s rocked everything from microbraids to the permed orange wrap she’s donning right now. Just like her work at the Post Office didn’t stop during the pandemic, she said her haircare couldn’t take a break either. Four weeks ago, she traveled to the South Side to a hair salon to get washed, conditioned, colored and straightened.

“I knew I was taking the risk by doing it, but my hair was just starting to look too bad,” Moore said. “I figured if my job was making me come out, I may as well get my hair done.”

Making a Way

Unlike Moore, Trenicia Rivers isn’t reporting to work everyday. Because of the pandemic, she’s had to close the doors to her Adore Me Hair Studio in Oak Park, which she’s owned and operated since 2016. She said not being able to do hair at her salon, or at home has a tremendous impact on her life right now, both financially and emotionally. 

For many hair stylists like Rivers, the beauty shop is more than a service. It’s a community where Black women can meet and share the talk of the town. The hair salon is a place away from the kids and from the chores at home. It’s a beauty haven with a visceral attachment to self-care.

“I am not able to meet with my clients and a lot of my clients and I are very close-knit,” Rivers said. “Me not being able to speak with them and spend the time is draining for me. Them not being able to get their hair done is draining for them, too. When we look good, we feel good.”

Financially, Rivers said that she had some savings put away for rainy days like this, but she’s reluctant to spend her savings during the pandemic so that she’ll have that money for future planning and unseen circumstances that may arise for her family. 

Instead, to supplement her income while also helping her clients survive the salon closures, Rivers has been styling wigs and shipping them to clients. She said she is currently running promotions — $150.00 per unit as long as the client provides hair — to provide affordable hair units to many of her clients, who are primarily working class Black women ages 25 to 50. She also has a YouTube page with 347,000 subscribers where she does tutorials to help women with permed and natural hair to style their hair, with or without wigs. 

Trenicia Rivers posing outside of her beauty shop | Photo by Darius Griffin [The TRiiBE]

“Haircare for women is very essential because so many are dealing with so much at home, [on top of] not being able to get their hair done,” said Rivers. “That means a lot for us, to go sit down in a chair for some hours and get up looking pretty. That helps our mental state. It helps us at home and even when we’re dealing with our men and children.”

Throughout the pandemic, clients have been contacting Rivers, asking her to break the stay-at-home order to come to their homes or even open her shop to do their hair. She refused to do so because she didn’t think it was safe.

Education is key

Larry Roberts Jr. also doesn’t believe it’s a good idea to visit salons and barbershops right now. He’s a master barber who currently owns eight barber and cosmetology schools on Chicago’s South Side, Joliet and in Fort Worth, Texas. He said he’s the first person to have a barber school inside of Cook County Jail. 

Roberts’ work over the years has been educating aspiring barbers on how to safely run a business. Now, during COVID-19, he is lending his voice and expertise as a professional through his nonprofit organization DATA (Developing a Trade After School) Foundation Inc. He is on a mission to educate barber and beauty schools, shops and salons on how to maintain their business and remain viable during and after the pandemic.

“During this period, this opportunity should be used for barbers to start from the drawing board,” said Roberts. “If you’re not going to die from this, put together a vision board to better prepare for times like this in the future.”

Like many of his colleagues, Roberts considers the hair industry to be an essential business. Although some stylists and barbers are still styling and cutting heads to keep their own heads above water, he doesn’t recommend it during the stay at home order. Instead of taking the risk to bring clients inside the shop, or doing home appointments, he said barbers and stylists should use this time to brainstorm future plans for their businesses and safer ways to service their clients upon reopening.

Taleatha Wallace, 42, was one of 12 self-contracted hair stylists and barbers who worked out of AJ Styles Barber and Beauty Salon in Galewood. She was forced out of work once her job shut down in March | Photo by Darius Griffin [The TRiiBE]
Wallace has had to depend on the sole income of her 20-year-old daughter [middle], who’s been working at Krispy Kreme Donuts for three years | Photo by Darius Griffin [The TRiiBE]

Roberts said he contracted COVID-19 nearly three months ago. He said although his symptoms weren’t as bad as others have described, he still urges people to take necessary precautions to help stop the spread of the virus. 

“Coronavirus is no joke,” said Roberts. “I’m just happy I didn’t lose my life and I’m here to help educate people on how to stay safe and stay tough enough to survive this industry.”

Some customers like Beverley Lambert, 23, have had to scramble to find someone to do their hair for two months now. Three weeks ago, she traveled to a friend’s home to get her hair braided for a maternity photo shoot she’d planned to celebrate her pregnancy. She didn’t want to forgo her maternity shoot because it was the only thing she could have to remember this joyous occasion, considering that the pandemic shut down her gender reveal party that was planned for April 5, only two weeks after the city shut down. 

“It wasn’t smart, but I wanted to be presentable for my maternity shoot since my gender reveal party had gotten cancelled because of COVID-19,” Lambert said. “I think it’s a risk because technically I went to a friend’s house and we weren’t social distancing at the time.”

Lambert’s friend took about two hours to finish her braids. The friend wore a mask, but Lambert took hers on and off during the two-hour session because, being pregnant, she found it hard to breathe through it. Also, Lambert said it was challenging to keep the mask secured around her ears because she wears glasses. 

“I was trying to do the right thing and protect myself and my baby,” said Lambert. “I wanted to look good for my photo shoot because this moment means a lot. I’ll never get this moment back.”

As the salons and barbershops prepare to reopen during phase 3 next month, some Black folks still worry about whether it’s possible to spend time inside salons or stylists’s homes without catching the virus. Ashley Posey, a 25-year-old graduate student at DePaul University, is using this time to show people how to do their own styles at home.

With 3,670 followers on Instagram, Posey posts hair videos and tutorials to teach women with natural hair how to style and manage it from home. She’s been doing this for about a year now, and realizes that there are several Black women who struggle with managing their own hair. 

“Hair is one of those things you kind of take for granted,” Posey said. “At a time like this, when people can’t go outside, it creates a difference in their days. Looking good, having your hair done, can bring you the spirit you need to get through all of this. Hair is important.”

Posey, who lives on the North Side, said her Instagram videos have attracted natural hair companies such as ORS Curls Unleashed and KureeBelle, who both follow her page. She’s currently an ambassador for Thank God It’s Natural (TGIN), where she gets paid to work their events across the city. Each brand pays differently and, according to Posey, she could make anywhere between $250 and $1,000 per partnership as a brand ambassador for natural hair care products. 

“My videos show that you can do your own natural hair,” Posey said. “Yes, it takes a long time to get used to our kinks, our curls and things like that, but it’s achievable and it can be just as beautiful as straight hair, flat ironed hair, wigs, weaves and relaxers.”

Gregory Skipper, a salon owner who sits on the Illinois State Board of Cosmetology, said that he doesn’t believe the process should be rushed, and industry professionals should be ready to embrace new and necessary changes at their businesses at the time of reopening. 

“For COVID-19, there is now a system we have put in place for everyone in the industry to abide by without being a threat to the industry or the public,” Skipper said. 

As a board member, Skipper helps regulate professionals in the cosmetology industry, makes sure everyone complies with industry standards, and decides on bylaws and legislation for the industry to follow. This month, Skipper and the board met, and worked with Gov. J.B. Pritzker to develop safety guidelines for hair care professionals across the state. 

Skipper’s salon, Skippers Clippers Beauty and Barber Salon in Bellwood, has been closed since March 20. He’s had to layoff his workers as the pandemic struck the haircare industry. Being out of work is a handicap, he said, but he’s been able to manage financially because he’s been teaching cosmetology and barber classes online. He said that he’s carefully preparing to open up shop by the end of the month and this experience is one that he and other salon owners will never forget.

Hair salons and barbershops located outside of Chicago are following Gov. Pritzker’s “Restore Illinois” plan, which allows for a cautious reopening of businesses beginning May 29. Skippers Clippers Beauty and Barber Salon in Bellwood and Adore Me Hair Studio in Oak Park plan to reopen that day.

“COVID-19 has paralyzed the haircare industry,” said Skipper. “When we talk about social distancing, it is very complicated to do what we do in our industry because we are up close and personal. It is a hands-on relationship.”

Skipper said new rules in the barbershop and hair salons will create a different environment and experience for patrons and employees. He urges the industry and the public to be safe during the reopening process and adhere to new guidelines put in place. Yet, he knows that this battle with COVID-19 and the hair industry is far from over 

“If they don’t get a vaccination in place to be able to nurture and come to some kind of cure to paralyze what we got affecting us, then we still have some stronger challenges ahead.”