‘Fear all around’: Covid-19 leaves wellness sector in bad health
Hair salons were officially allowed to reopen in the first week of June in Delhi and by end-June in Mumbai. But the potential for infection in enclosed spaces is keeping clients away.Updated: Jul 05, 2020 22:25 IST
Fifteen years ago, I picked a small salon in a neighbourhood market and made first contact with Renila Lepcha. The visits bred a ritual. “Trust me,” she would say, as she got her scissors out to make the hair on top of my head look like a nuclear cloud. “Always do!” I would reply.
We accepted this ritual for what it was: an unspoken commitment between a hairdresser and a satisfied client that this would continue unless one of us changed neighbourhoods.
The pandemic has hit Renila’s profession hard. According to the Beauty & Wellness Sector Skill Council (B&WSSC), which operates under the aegis of the union ministry of skill development and entrepreneurship, this industry employs nearly 70 lakh people across India. Which means that when the salons were forced shut amid the Covid-19 lockdown in March, something like the entire population of Bulgaria saw their earnings either shrink or disappear.
“This sector also employs an economically vulnerable population — a migrant workforce dominated by women. It is not product-based, it’s service-based. A shampoo or a meal can be sold via distributors with no-touch delivery but ours is a touch-and-feel industry,” says Monica Bahl, CEO of the B&WSSC. “A hairstylist cannot possibly attend to a client from two metres away.”
Hair salons were officially allowed to reopen in the first week of June in Delhi and by end-June in Mumbai. But the potential for infection in enclosed spaces is keeping clients away. There are also the unanswered questions. Can blow-drying lead to an increased flow of virus-carrying particles? Is the PPE gear really being disposed of after each use? Is anyone checking to make sure this is done?
Either way, the numbers are down to about 50% of normal traffic, on a good day, says Sumit Israni, managing director of the pan-India brand, Geetanjali Salons and Studios. Pre-lockdown, Renila’s salon, Hair & Glow, Delhi, serviced 15 clients a day. After the easing of the lockdown, it gets no more than three.
The question of safety over aesthetics is really a cul de sac. In Europe, they’re watching operas at drive-in theatres. In Mumbai, stylist Placid Braganza, who heads a 15-staffer salon, says the lockdown has taught him that he needs to concentrate on his teaching career as a possible Plan B.
“People do realise that looking groomed is key messaging, even if the only people seeing you are seeing you on a screen. But there is fear all around,” he says, “no matter what gear we put on.”
The barber-surgeon was considered part of the medical community in Europe during the Middle Ages; besides haircuts, they gave leech treatments to soldiers injured in battle.
Even during this lockdown, Australia and Japan deemed haircuts an essential service. When salons reopened in China in March, regulars quickly made appointments for a new kind of long-distance haircut, where trimmers and scrubbers were attached to long rods.
In India, Sangeeta Rathi, a business strategist, gave her son a trim after watching a viral YouTube tutorial posted by the celebrity stylist Jawed Habib. Across the country, people were posting their own videos as they struggled with craft scissors and unpolished skills in the effort to remain presentable.
Now that things have opened up somewhat, home visits are becoming more popular, but the numbers remain small.
“I don’t want to turn paranoid. That’s not me. Covid is here to stay. If you sanitise multiple times and both wear masks, it should be fine,” says Aarti Khurana, a tarot card reader from Mumbai. Still, she was a bit taken aback when the young man who turned up at her door was wearing a suit he said had been made by his mother, which he washed every day.
“He charged me hefty rates but I was still filled with gratitude just to have a professional do my hair. As soon as he left, I had a bath, just to be safe,” she says.
Convenience is the new non-negotiable in the service industry, says Ayush Bansal, a Mumbai gym owner. His change of hairdressers maps the transition. Five years ago, he switched from a salon 20 minutes away to one just down the road. Now he only uses hairdressers registered with Urban Clap, a doorstep services delivery app.
Of those heading out, many are making appointments not at the neighbourhood salons they frequented, but at salons run by larger brands. After months of styling her sons’ hair (they’re aged 12 and 6), when Delhi-based academic Rama Paul took them to a salon in June, it was to one of the larger brands. “The hairdressers looked like astronauts in their PPE gowns,” she says. “I picked a big brand over our usual salon because I figured they would be more conscious of a bad review, and hygiene standards would be better.”
Fear is impacting every business in the world, including ours, says Habib, who runs salons across 120 cities. “Clients are walking in like inspectors, asking if the shop is safe. We want to be safe too!” So far, Andhra Pradesh and Nagaland are two states offering a one-time financial assistance to the fraternity. AP is offering grants to help hairdressers, tailors and launderers survive till business picks up. Nagaland is offering cash to people returning home from other states, having lost jobs in a range of industries including salons.
At Hair & Glow, Renila Lepcha of Darjeeling is staying put, waiting for her regular clients to return. “They’ll come. They trust me,” she says.