Barbers Keep Operations Sharp and Clean for Reopening

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — After nearly two months of shaggy hair and homemade trims, barbershops and salons are opening for business on Friday.

Barbers in the Mahoning Valley say appointments are already filling their books as customers who are eager for a trim call, email and book online or over social media. Because of restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic, walk-in appointments are prohibited and customers must book ahead. Customers who arrive early for an appointment must wait outside in their vehicle.

And the changes don’t stop there. Barber shops had about a week to ensure they were in compliance with the guidelines set by Gov. Mike DeWine’s administration, which meant stocking up on masks, gloves and cleaning supplies for staff, as well as making a few physical changes to their shops to maintain social distancing.

All barbers are required to wear masks, which are optional – although encouraged – for customers upon entering the shop. Hand sanitizer is required to be available for barbers and customers.

Some shops already have the necessary distance or more between chairs. Others were able to physically move their chairs or put up protective barriers.

At The Barber Shop, 8258 Market St., Boardman, owner Tommy Mastran installed shower curtain rods at each station with a clear plastic curtain. With the existing setup and plumbing, Mastran couldn’t physically move the stations, so the curtains were put in place “so the customer feels safe,” he says.

Maintaining that comfort level while implementing the changes is important, he says. It’s a place where customers come to relax, debate, talk about sports and what’s going on in each other’s lives. And barbers are working to ensure that culture doesn’t change.

“When it comes to a barber shop, the last thing you want is to turn it into the feel of a doctor’s office,” he says. “With adding these changes, hopefully it doesn’t make anybody feel isolated or things like that.”

For the most part, the state’s guidelines regarding cleanliness aren’t much different from how barbers were already regulated by Ohio law. Under the Ohio Revised Code, barber shops and salons must adhere to a regular cleaning and disinfection schedule. All tools of the trade are to be properly sanitized and disinfected after use. Capes are prohibited from coming into contact with a customer’s neck and either a paper neck band or towel should be used to prevent that contact, and each band or towel should be disinfected and cleaned after each use.

Each station must also have a working sink, allowing barbers and stylists to wash their hands frequently.

Excalibur Barber Grooming Lounge, inside the Southern Park Mall in Boardman, has always had a cleaning service come in once weekly, and the staff there did their own cleaning and sanitization as well, says owner Kelan Bilal.

Tommy Mastran installed clear plastic shower curtains around each barber chair at The Barber Shop.

“Hygiene is key,” Bilal says. “Personal image, professional image and personal grooming is big. We don’t just groom hair. We groom lives and lifestyles.”

The only difference is that in-house cleaning will now be done at the end of the day instead of first thing in the morning. That means the shop won’t be able to accept any last-minute clients like it did before the coronavirus pandemic, he says.

Customers who are used to walking in will have to schedule an appointment at a new kiosk near the shop’s entrance. They can also schedule appointments via the shop’s website, Facebook or Instagram, he says.

Space won’t be an issue at Excalibur, as the chairs are separated by at least seven feet. Bilal has maintained the same customers for his 20-plus-year career and has stayed in touch with them regarding reopening. Already his schedule is pretty booked, he says.

“People have been waiting,” Bilal says. “Our clients have been patient, not only with us but with the situation.”

The reopening comes not a moment too soon. All eight of Bilal’s barbers are independent contractors like him, so they weren’t earning any income since the closure. All are returning when the shop reopens Friday.

“For some in the industry, unemployment was not was available because of being an independent contractor,” Bilal says. “When they started putting things into place for us, we had already been out for a while and struggling. And we still haven’t collected on anything.”

Two weeks ago, Ohio’s self-employed workers and independent contractors were able to pre-register for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. The state announced May 12 that it would start accepting jobless claims from those who pre-registered and are ineligible for traditional unemployment benefits.

As of Tuesday, some 208,000 workers pre-registered for the program, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family services.

Douglas Littleton, who owns the Look Sharp Barber Shop at 2039 Elm Road NE, Warren, received a response Tuesday on his application to the program: a maximum benefit amount of $7,371 to be paid in weekly installments of $189.

“What kind of a joke is that?” Littleton says. “That’s not even what I make in a day.”

Littleton and two other barbers work in his shop, including a single mother. All three are self-employed, so nine weeks is a “a long time to go without a paycheck” for anybody, he says. And while they received their federal stimulus checks, his $1,200 went entirely to keeping his shop open.

“I think our country can do a lot better job than that,” he says.

Littleton understands the stay-at-home order was needed to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the disease spread by the coronavirus. But because barber shops and salons were already following policies similar to state guidelines, Littleton feels the closure for the shops could have been shorter.

“If they had to shut down for a week or two to figure out what they figured out now, it would have been fine,” he says. “We’re licensed professionals. All you have to do is call us and give us a week to train or set things up like we’re doing right now.”

Littleton has been a barber for 10 years and purchased Look Sharp after working in Columbus for a time. His shop has operated in Warren since 1960, so he serves several community leaders, including members of the city council, first responders and business owners.

“I do this because I love it. As a barber, it’s a very personal job,” he says. “Sometimes you have to go to the funeral home to give them a last haircut before they put them into the ground.”

A post on Look Sharp’s Facebook page states the shop won’t be doing walk-ins or appointments. Rather, customers will sign up on a sheet posted to the door with name, phone number and the name of the barber they request. Then customers can wait outside or in their vehicle until they’re called. They’ll have five minutes to respond or will lose their spot, according to the statement.

Only three of the five chairs will be in use, so spacing won’t be an issue. Look Sharp will be doing haircuts, beard trims and head shaves, but no face shaves, according to the statement. So far, feedback on social media has mostly been positive, he says.

“For the most part, people are excited to get out and just get out of the house,” Littleton says.

To make up for the lost businesses, barbers are looking to put in long hours. The Barber Shop’s Mastran says he’s booked for the next two weeks and will open his doors Sunday if needed, when he would normally be closed. Mastran will be welcoming back all six of his barbers.

“People want haircuts. So if you’re in this profession, you’re going to be busier than ever,” Mastran says. “You have to take advantage of this at this point and time because you don’t know what’s going to come next.”

Mastran also instructs barbering at the Beyond Expectations Barber College in Youngstown. He’s teaching his students that the guidelines established because of the pandemic are the new way of doing things, and aren’t a setback for the industry so much as a restructuring.

“It comes down to showing them that this is the new normal. This is what you have to do,” Mastran says. “There’s no way around it.”

Pictured at top: Donning the official Excalibur Barber Grooming Lounge mask, Kelan Bilal is ready to open his shop.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.