In his “last lifetime,” Travis Vu closed his hair salon after the coronavirus forced state leaders to impose a lockdown in a reeling California in late March.
The casually stylish Vu, 47, turned off the lights on the custom metal and concrete chandeliers gracing his industrial six-seat space. He stayed home, slept, exercised, whipping up grilled garlic shrimp and broken rice dishes to sell on the side until regulations allowed him to reopen in early June. That’s when he dipped into savings to stock up on sanitary supplies, welcoming back clients with stringy locks, worn-out perms and graying heads.
TravisVu The Salon in Fountain Valley found business “fixing stuff people tried unsuccessfully at their house,” its owner said. “Oh my God, everyone was cutting their own hair or their family’s hair and not having good luck. They had to spend, like, triple to get it corrected.”
For months, Vu and thousands of other hair and nail salon owners up and down the state have been whipsawed, financially and emotionally, as California has struggled to re-open its economy.
At his salon, four stylists washed and snipped together until two weeks ago, when the spiraling number of COVID-19 cases compelled Gov. Gavin Newsom to shut down operations in the Golden State — only to announce on June 17 that salons could resume their services if they moved outdoors.
Vu seized the moment. He rushed to IKEA to buy rolling carts and standing mirrors. He set up two socially distanced chairs outside his storefront, squeezing a giant planter blooming with succulents between them. He posted photos and a video on Facebook.
The first day, eight customers arrived at his doorstep. The second day there were five, ready for a polished redo. Now, he’s on a “short break” to create a site plan, getting the required insurance and permits from the city and the state Board of Barbering and Cosmetology before reopening yet again.
“Open today, closed tomorrow,” is his answer to questions about the new business cycle, hand in hand with a mind-altering pandemic that has seen the United States rocket to No. 1 on a global list of worst-hit countries. “We just don’t know what to expect anymore, but we are trying our best. Working is in the blood.”
James Phan, owner of multiple small businesses, among them Ritz Nails in Tustin, said he believes that “we must adapt to each situation to survive. What choice do we have at this time?”
To entice customers, he bypassed the fancy leather spa chairs — complete with running water, but hard to move. He and his staff instead set up standard chairs and fans under the shade outdoors, asking manicurists to carry buckets back and forth to rinse and soak clients’ feet.
“It’s a bit hot, a bit windy, dusty — the conditions are not ideal because when nails dry too fast, the nail techs can’t do all the paintwork they need to do. But the goal is to keep one side employed and the other side serviced. That way, we’re all happy, and everyone likes the fresh air,” Phan said.
Like other salonists, he clocks in seven days a week, manning eight stations and sanitizing thoroughly after each customer, rather than wait out a pandemic that would wipe out his financial resources.
“The start-up costs and restart-up costs. The hiring of workers, then laying them off, then rehiring — you go around and around,” said Mel Parker, a marketing specialist from Los Angeles who said that these days what she misses more than eating in restaurants is getting her “standard indulgences” of a salon blowout and gel nails. She saw pictures of TravisVu The Salon online and TV reports of clients perched on small seats, as manicurists buffed their toes.
“Sometimes, it seems like the world is ending. Customers want to do their hair and nails to cheer themselves up — and if we need to go outside to do it, we will,” she said. “We still want to look good.”
But for salons, fluctuating between indoors and outdoors, struggling to break even or to keep pace with pandemic-inspired regulations, is a daily pressure. Analysts say the endless guidelines have prompted not only confusion, but frustration.
Cheri Gyuro, spokeswoman for the state Department of Consumer Affairs, said the Board of Barbering and Cosmetology “understands the effect shutdowns have on businesses and is sensitive to that.”
“The situation is fluid, and the environment is constantly changing,” she added, “but for now, personal care facilities that are on the statewide monitoring list must follow the governor’s directive not to operate services indoors.”
Still, there’s anger.
“The feeling is our industry has been decimated with all these closures and reopening requirements,” says Tam Nguyen, president of Advance Beauty College in Garden Grove and Laguna Hills. He has taught courses in the trade for more than 20 years and said that guidelines for operating outdoors don’t always make sense.
“What if we’re cutting hair and the salon is next door to a restaurant where the risk of flying hair can harm diners?” he asked. “Or what if our front door leads into a parking lot and there are no barriers to shield manicurists from cars driving in? Accidents can easily happen.
“This is ridiculous. In class, we stress the importance of sanitation and cross-contamination for hundreds of hours. We’re already careful.”
For Vu, closing up his shop, which is near the entrance of a tax consulting office and a pizza place, meant shepherding all the temporary chairs inside. The wrapped madeleines on a cake platter next to the cash register will await future guests — hopefully, soon. He’s intending to stay positive, not despair.
But “after that first month locked down at home, I started freaking out, never thought it would stretch so long,” he recalled. “One week became six weeks. Then all the bills were coming.”
He couldn’t get a break on rent, nor did he get a stimulus check or government payroll loan. His weekends are “completely free” until the end of the year, with bookings for bridal makeup, his side staple, all gone. His income is down by two-thirds.
“I’m not a fortune teller. I only hope for all our sakes we can stay reopened and the clients will understand it’s not risky coming back because we keep their safety in mind,” he said.
Realtor Mindy Luong said she remains loyal to Vu.
“I tried to do my own hair. It’s terrible, we need the professional,” she said, smiling. “We can’t always jump into the car and drive to anywhere any more. We have to call first to see if they’re working.”