by M. Anthony Davis
Barbershops and beauty salons are more than just local businesses in Black communities. They represent safe spaces for communal gatherings and often serve as a hub for civic discourse, playing host to important cultural dialogue and connection. I vividly remember my early hair cut days, sitting in Greg’s chair — Greg was one of my first barbers — getting a skin-tight fade way back in 1996, as he explained to me in detail how the SuperSonics could beat Jordan’s Bulls and become NBA Champions. The barbershop is the one of the first places you’ll hear complex debates over sports, politics, religion, relationships, and everything in between. It’s also one of the few public spaces in a city with demographics like Seattle’s, where members of the Black community can have these debates without being under the microscope of whiteness.
When COVID-19 forced businesses across the country to close — including all barbershops and beauty salons — many communities such as Skyway (in unincorporated south King County) lost more than just a place to get a quick cut or style. They lost an important institution that fostered cultural conversation and well-being in our community.
When Governor Inslee approved King County’s move to Phase 2 in mid-June, barbershops and beauty salons, along with many other businesses, were allowed to open with reduced capacities. These Phase 2 reopenings also came with new regulations for safety. Jeremy Williams, President of the West Hill Community Association tells me, “I would say that the businesses here are doing a pretty good job of adhering to reopening guidelines, and in general are very amiable to implementing those guidelines.”
The new guidelines mentioned by Williams include both patrons and staff wearing masks, maintaining social distancing requirements, and limiting the number of patrons allowed inside businesses at one time. The West Hill Community Association has helped businesses in the Skyway area comply with the reopening guidelines by distributing King County-provided masks and hand sanitizer to businesses. They have also provided additional masks for customers in need.
These new regulations are easy enough in a grocery store or even a restaurant. But, what about a barbershop? In a barbershop, there is an intimacy between customer and practitioner. There is community between barbers, clients in the chairs, and those waiting their turn. This waiting is not the silent, sedated, month-old-magazine-reading experienced in your dentist’s office. When waiting for a haircut, you converse and socialize. How will this experience be achieved within the new guidelines? In the mile or so stretch of Renton Avenue South in Skyway, there are five Black-owned barbershops and beauty salons. I reached out to a few owners for some answers.
“It makes it more of an intimate session,” explains Eddie Edwards, owner of Personal Touch Barbershop. The new regulations for barbershops prohibit clients from waiting inside the shop for their turn. So now, when cutting hair, only barbers and the client in the chair can be in the shop. Everyone in line must be outside the shop, preferably in their vehicles. “It makes it more intimate instead of just an open floor for everybody to just jump in on conversations.”
In addition to the loss of group conversation, barbers are making other adjustments in the age of COVID-19 phased re-opening. They must now clean and sanitize not only their equipment after each use, but also the chair and everything the client comes in contact with. Barbers must also keep logs of everyone who enters the shop so that if a case of COVID does occur, proper contact tracing can be conducted.
Even with the new precautions and procedures, barbers are eager to continue to cut. Bryant House, owner of House of Cutz, says that while his shop was shut down he continued to do one-on-one cuts for clients in their homes or have them come to his. Now that he is reopened, House has adjusted to the new business operations with the only setback being the low volume of customers willing to get cuts during the pandemic. When asked about the new culture in his shop, House explains, “Barber shops and salons, they usually have a lot of talk and dialogue, kids here chillin’ and stuff, people watching TV and watching [sports] games. And now that basically only two people can be in there, myself and one of my clients, it has made it real difficult to be able to have that enjoyable barbershop time like we used to have.”
With Governor Inslee recently announcing that counties in Phase 2 are still not yet allowed to apply for Phase 3, and with the addition of new limitations on social gatherings for counties currently in Phase 3, it does not appear that businesses will be back to normal anytime soon. Until then, if you decide to go to a salon or barbershop, remember to bring to your mask, be prepared to wait outside for your turn, and be ready for a much more intimate experience.
Speaking about the current climate in the shop and his hopes for the future, House tells me, “It is a difficult time right now. We’re trying to get through it the best way we know how and continue to make ends meet and take care of things. Hopefully, in the near future, things will get back to normal. But I don’t see it going back to anything normal anytime soon.”
M. Anthony Davis (Mike Davis) is a local journalist covering arts, culture, and sports.
Featured image: Brian House of House of Cutz gives his son a haircut. (Photo: Susan Fried)
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