S1E34: Hands-On / Nicola Corl, Shannon Adams, Latia Curtis

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“They say, you need to keep a minimum of six feet distance between people, but we’re usually within 10 inches of our clients for the entire time that they are in the salon. The biggest risk is when you’re in extended or prolonged, rather contact with somebody and the CDC defines that as more than 15 minutes. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a haircut that took less than 15 minutes, but generally speaking, we cannot social distance from our clients.” – Nicola Corl

With the economy re-opening, many workers in America are choosing between protecting their own health and protecting their businesses. This is particularly striking for hands-on workers – like hairstylist Nicola Corl, make-up artist Latia Curtis, and massage therapist Shannon Adams – who cannot work from home or socially distance from their clients. In today’s episode, Dr. Celine Gounder speaks with Nicola, Latia, and Shannon, about how coronavirus has impacted their industries, and how they have personally balanced business and health during the pandemic.

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Celine Gounder: I’m Dr. Celine Gounder, and this is “Epidemic.” Today is Friday, July 10th.

Ari Shapiro: OK. Next, we have a question that I think many listeners are beginning to have in states that are opening back up. Scarlett in Kansas writes: “With hair salons opening up here in Kansas, I and others are wondering if it is safe to get a haircut. It is not possible to social distance with your hairdresser. Would it be safe if the stylist wore not just a mask but a face shield, or is it better to wait? If so, until when? How do we know when it is safe to get a haircut?” What would you tell Scarlett?

Celine Gounder: Back in May, I participated in an NPR call-in show about coronavirus hosted by All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro.

In terms of getting a haircut, there’s different ways to look at that, is it essential? If you’re really worried about your hairdresser, you know, and their livelihood, maybe you send her a check and a card… 

Ari Shapiro: Yeah… 

Celine Gounder: As opposed to, you know, keeping her business going by getting a haircut.

Ari Shapiro: I was going to say it’s hard for me to think of when getting a haircut would be essential. It might feel important. Alright, well, here’s our next listener dilemma…  

Nicola Corl: And there was someone who had called in and asked, is it safe to go get a haircut? And your very simple answer was, no. And for us hearing someone say that seemed like it was just the perfect quote to encapsulate all of our fears and all of our concerns.

Celine Gounder: And that’s how I met Nicola Corl.

Nicola Corl: My name’s Nicola Corl. I’m a hairdresser. I live in Portland, Oregon, and I own a salon called Sweetheart. I’ve been doing hair for about 20 years.

Celine Gounder: Nicola and some of her friends working in salons were worried about what was happening in Oregon. Governor Kate Brown announced that hair salons would be in the first phase of businesses to reopen. Nicola and her friends in the industry were confused… how were they supposed to do their jobs during a pandemic?

Nicola Corl: In every piece of literature they send out, they say, you need to keep a minimum of six feet distance between people, but we stand on top of our clients. We’re usually within 10 inches of our clients for the entire time that they are in the salon. The biggest risk is when you’re in extended or prolonged, rather, contact with somebody and the CDC defines that as more than 15 minutes. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a haircut that took less than 15 minutes, but generally speaking, we cannot social distance from our clients.

Celine Gounder: In this episode we’re going to hear from Nicola and other women who are working in the personal-care industry. We’ll hear how they’re approaching their businesses and health in the time of coronavirus. And we’ll ask them why hair and other personal-care industries have become political flashpoints during this pandemic.

And you’re recording now, Nicola?

Nicola Corl: Yes, I am.

Celine Gounder: Nicola had been out of work for three months when we spoke. She called me from her empty salon back in June.

Nicola Corl: It’s very small, it’s 416 square feet. There’s only three stylists in here, and we created a space that felt perfect to us. And it’s a place that I love to spend time. I’m sitting in here right now. One, because my kids are sucking up all the internet at my house, but also because I love the space, and I miss it. I miss it terribly.

Celine Gounder: When we spoke, Nicola was waiting for word if Multnomah County, where she works, would be allowed to reopen. Some businesses were excited to get back to work, but Nicola had her doubts.

Nicola Corl: You know, I’ve been buying PPE and buying things to try and keep us safe. We bought an air purification system.

Celine Gounder: She said she’d already spent $3,000 on PPE for whenever the salon does reopen. But it felt wrong to be buying up PPE when hospitals and other healthcare workers needed it too. And even if she did open, there was something intangible that would be lost.

Nicola Corl: I’m nervous and a little sad because, you know, at this point we’re looking at changing our clothes between every client, wearing a mask for the entire day, wearing a face shield for some things that we do in the salon, it really disrupts the connection that you have with people. And part of me feels like it’s a little shallow, but that’s a huge component of our jobs. We build relationships with people.

Celine Gounder: Those relationships she built with clients over the years have paid off. When Nicola had to close the salon, she went twelve weeks without any income before her unemployment came through.

Nicola Corl: It’s been a huge impact. I haven’t been paying my mortgage, I’ve been deferring credit card payments. I’ve had clients who bought me groceries, who paid for me to go to the farmer’s market to buy groceries. I have a son who was at the University of Oregon. Well, we had to withdraw him because I couldn’t afford to pay his tuition when I had no idea how much money was coming in. And it was actually my clients who literally sustained me. They paid for haircuts that they are not getting from months or they just sent me money. They made sure that I was okay. They did far more than the state or the, or the government to be quite frank.

Celine Gounder: Dealing with unemployment has been a huge problem for Nicola and other people in the beauty and wellness industry. Many people in her field are independent contractors or sole proprietors. That means they weren’t even eligible for unemployment insurance before the pandemic. Nicola said it took weeks to even be able to apply for pandemic unemployment assistance.

There’s a number of elected officials and other public officials who make comments about how these kinds of safety net programs are discouraging people from going back to work and, you know, why would you go back to work when you could just stay home and get paid? You know, how do you respond to that? How do you react to that when you hear that?

Shannon Adams: I don’t know many people who are making a ton more money and getting rich on unemployment. I don’t know who those people are.

Celine Gounder: This is Shannon Adams. She’s a massage therapist in Portland, Oregon. She and Nicola met over their concerns about reopening hands-on businesses.

Shannon Adams: I feel pretty frustrated, and there’s definitely moments of sadness and anger around that because I just don’t think that they understand. It’s really easy to make those comments, when someone’s sitting in their house, being able to, you know, to do their job in the comfort of their home and not have any disruption to their income.

Celine Gounder: Some may be motivated to get back to work once their unemployment runs out, but Shannon sees another, unintended consequence. Some are just leaving their field all together.

Shannon Adams: I mean, a lot of massage therapists are changing careers entirely, and these are top massage therapists. These are massage therapists that teach and travel all over the world that are like, and they are like, no way, do not go back. If at all possible, like figure something else out, it is not safe.

Celine Gounder: Shannon’s business had been closed since March, just like Nicola’s. The financial costs are real, she says; April is usually her busiest month. But there’s an ethical cost, too.

Shannon Adams: As a massage therapist, I’m bound to a code of do no harm. That is the code of massage therapy when we’re licensed and at least in the state of Oregon, that is like number one on the list. And I can’t guarantee that to my clients. I don’t even think we can put a cost on that.

Celine Gounder: But many in the beauty industry are back at work.

Latia Curtis: Okay. I am Latia Curtis. I am a makeup artist and hairstylist based out of Greenville, South Carolina.

Celine Gounder: Latia runs a production company where she does hair and makeup for commercial shoots, luxury bridal, and TV and film.

Latia Curtis: So March we were closed, I think it was mid-March when the schools shut down and then the state of South Carolina made a decision to shut down salons, barber shops, pretty much anything that was considered a non-essential business.

Celine Gounder: But when South Carolina closed down nonessential businesses like Latia’s, she was ready.

Latia Curtis: I have this motto I live by: I don’t panic, I prepare.

Celine Gounder: She did tons of research about PPP… SBA… all kinds of loans and other supports from the government that could help her stay afloat during the pandemic.

Latia Curtis: I applied for those programs the day they went live. I was on my computer at 12:01 AM with all of my stuff.

Celine Gounder: She got approval for a PPP loan… but it took more than six weeks. Latia was also able to get unemployment benefits from the state of South Carolina. But when South Carolina reopened… she’d lose those benefits.

Latia Curtis: We opened back up to salons, gyms, everything on May the 18th. And since then, there has been a dramatic increase in cases here in South Carolina.

Celine Gounder: So when May 18th rolled around… she didn’t have a choice. She had to go back to work. And then she got another surprise.

Latia Curtis: In fact, yesterday I got a lovely letter from our state unemployment office saying that they’ve overpaid me $2,600 for a period of four weeks, which is weird because I wasn’t working during that time.

Celine Gounder: What went through your mind as you’re reading this?

Latia Curtis: I mean, lots of curse words went through my mind when reading this. Because I think all I’m going to have to do is just go into my savings and payback $2,600, which was like, our mortgage for the past, like several months.

Celine Gounder: Now that Latia is back at work, her routine is very different. This is what she has to do when she does makeup for a wedding.

Latia Curtis: Sure. So before the booking even, I quarantine my kit in between jobs until the day before the booking, I pull it out and I, you know, bring it into my dining room area, put my gloves on and I break everything down and clean it. It probably takes me a full day. If we’re in a hotel, I have a separate room, I have a tape measure with me, so I am measuring like, six feet or as, as close to six feet as the room will allow for me and the artists to space apart. I have a tabletop fan and it’s a tabletop fan and air purifier to kind of keep airflow. I bought some like vinyl tablecloth and they’re hideous, but they’re not porous so I can set up on that and wipe things down and then we’ll go to pulling out our kits that we have cleaned. Photographers and videographers love to come into the space; I’m not going to be able to allow that anymore. The work doesn’t end when we set up and do one client, there’s a whole process in between clients that we have to go through. The aprons have to be wiped down, if the artist decides she wants to wear gloves, then she has to change her gloves out, wash her hands, put a new pair of gloves on, wipe the chairs, fresh brushes, you know, wipe down everything that they’ve used on the client before. And then when the booking is over, we have to clean everything all over again. And then as for me, when I come home, I bring my kit into my garage. I leave it in my garage and I strip down in my garage and walk through my house in my underwear and go straight into the shower and like, you know, do a full scrub, scalding hot water top to bottom. That’s my day.

Celine Gounder: So, you know, that’s a lot of extra time involved in one gig.

Latia Curtis: Yes.

Celine Gounder: Do you get paid extra for all of that extra time and materials and so on?

Latia Curtis: No, I do not. And that was something that a lot of us in the bridal community and in the production community were talking about that. How do we change our pricing?

Celine Gounder: And it’s not just the cost of making sure Latia and her team have proper PPE… anyone in the room needs it too.

Latia Curtis: I am charging the client for that, because that costs me money, but on top of just doing really beautiful hair and makeup it’s also part of my job responsibility to make sure that my kit is clean and I am performing services in a safe and sanitary way.

Celine Gounder: One of the most complicated things Latia, like the other women I interviewed, is dealing with is the question of liability. For example, South Carolina doesn’t have mandates when it comes to PPE use or other measures for COVID. They’re all voluntary.

Latia Curtis: I think that that gives me a great deal of anxiety because I can say all I want to like, hey, these are my guidelines, these are my procedures. But legally there’s not really much I can do to really push back on that if a client says, “Well, I don’t want to have to do this.” I have the right to refuse them service, but you know, that affects my reputation. I’m a black woman working in the Deep South, and I’m involved in activism. I have a really big mouth. People already think that I’m difficult, so to speak. So whenever I push back a little bit, there’s a little bit of that anxiety there.

Celine Gounder: Latia, Nicola, and Shannon all closed their businesses when their states went into lockdown. But not everyone else did.

I’m wondering if you’ve heard about, there’s this woman, Shelley Luther, who has a salon in Dallas. And there was a lot of coverage of her maybe a month or so ago…

Latia Curtis: Oh yeah, the, the lady that opened when she kind of it, she technically wasn’t supposed to, and then she got arrested, but then let go and got a huge GoFund me and everything. Oh yeah. I’ve been, I’ve been following that.

Shelley Luther will spend the next week in jail. Now, the judge gave her the option to avoid jail time if she closed her salon; she refused and also has to pay a $7,000 fine.

Celine Gounder: A white woman going to jail for operating a hair salon didn’t go over well, and she was quickly released.

Shelley’s free!

Celine Gounder: Luther became a luminary for the far right and the anti-shutdown crowd. Latia doesn’t agree with her decision to flout the law, especially because Luther received $18,000 in government support before she was jailed. But Latia knows a lot of people who didn’t get that kind of support are in a hard place.

Latia Curtis: I tried really hard not to pass judgment on people who were working under the radar. They don’t have any benefits. They’ve applied for everything. They’re not getting unemployment. But there’s like this whole ethical thing there too, from a health and safety perspective where it’s like, you don’t know how this is, this virus is transmitted. So you’re making a really bad decision and putting a lot of people at risk. Is that worth the money? There’s another side of me as a small business owner that’s like, yeah, but the government kind of just failed everybody. So what are you going to do?

Celine Gounder: People like Shelley Luther have become over-night heroes to some who oppose public health measures to curb the virus. But it brings up an interesting question: why is it that the beauty industry and other hands-on professions have become such flashpoints in this new culture war?

Nicole Corl: I’m under no illusion that I’m saving lives when I do hair but I do know that I have a strong and important relationship with my clients.

Celine Gounder: Nicola Corl again.

Nicole Corl: I know things about them that they don’t tell their husbands. They don’t tell their friends. They don’t tell anybody else. Something happens when you touch people’s heads. They become very vulnerable and, and that’s great. It’s important. We help people’s self esteem. We help bring out the beauty that is already inside of them, and help them feel good about themselves. So I understand why it feels important.

Celine Gounder: Shannon Adams sees something else at work. Something uglier.

Shannon Adams: I wonder if there’s some classism in here going on here, that we’re here to serve people. People want to look good. People want to feel good, you know, when they’re on their Zoom calls and get their eyelashes done and get the knot in their shoulder worked out. So I definitely think that there might be a piece of that.

Latia Curtis: And it’s not lost on me that the people that feel entitled to be waited on and served are predominantly like non-BIPOC people.

Celine Gounder: Latia Curtis again:

Latia Curtis: I am inundated with imagery and information and articles where I see, you know, white people with, you know, American flags and Confederate flags protesting without their masks on saying, you know, “I want a haircut,” and they’re not giving any sort of care and consideration to the people that have to provide that service.

Celine Gounder: We’ve talked a lot in this podcast about how coronavirus has exposed weaknesses in our society. Hair stylists, makeup artists, massage therapists, and other hands-on workers are no exception. Latia and Nicola are both thinking about how they can organize to make sure there’s more of a safety net for small business owners and independent contractors.

Latia Curtis: You know, people that provide touch services, beauty services, hair, and makeup, et cetera, you know, what do we do to protect ourselves? Because it might not be a global pandemic, but it might be like a really terrible hurricane. It might be a crazy natural disaster. Like anything could happen, what are we going to do to protect ourselves?

Celine Gounder: Nicola Corl.

Nicola Corl: What we’re concentrating on is trying to change the criteria for unemployment so that people who don’t feel safe and not just in a kind of esoteric, like, I don’t feel safe way, but like have immune compromised, have people at home with issues, or can’t get PPE are actually covered by unemployment going forward so they don’t feel forced to go back from a financial perspective, but we’re looking at, you know, figuring out ways that we can be better protected so that if this does come up for us again, that we’re not in the position of being completely liable for an outbreak, that we’re not in the position of being so financially unstable that being out of work for two or three months is, you know, devastating and life changing.

Celine Gounder: Back in Portland, Sweetheart Salon is open again. After postponing the Phase 1 reopening there, hair salons are now cleared to work. Nicola said in an email that she is following a lot of the steps you’d expect: PPE, fewer clients, as much distancing as possible. She even got that air purifier. But even with all those steps, she says she still doesn’t feel safe. The number of cases are going up every day. She sees other salons closing down when there’s an outbreak. It’s nerve wracking. The bright spot in all this is that she can do the thing she loves again: cutting hair. But for Nicola… Shannon… Latia… and so many other workers in America right now… there’s a level of risk that they’re forced to accept. They have to be as safe as they can in profoundly unsafe conditions.

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Today’s episode was produced by Zach Dyer and me. Our music is by the Blue Dot Sessions. Our interns are Sonya Bharadwa, Annabel Chen, and Julie Levey.

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Celine Gounder: I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. Thanks for listening to “Epidemic.”

Latia Curtis Latia Curtis
Nicola Corl Nicola Corl
Shannon Adams Shannon Adams
Dr. Celine Gounder Dr. Celine Gounder