Culture & the Family

Ray Carter | July 21, 2021

Data undermine COVID attacks on hair salons

Ray Carter

In spring 2020 as COVID-19 spread became a national concern, one industry—comprising individuals who cut and style hair—was often targeted for closure by individuals who claimed salons would be a source of widespread contagion.

Data now show the forced closure of those shops likely had little impact on COVID-19 spread but did generate extensive financial hardship.

“The salon industry in general did not transmit COVID,” said Julie Melton, an official with the Professional Beauty Association, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the industry. “We advocated that salons be able to reopen because there was no proof that they did transmit the disease.”

A survey conducted by the Professional Beauty Association of member businesses found very little COVID-19 transmission was traced to hair salons after reopening.

Of 2,004,338 clients served by surveyed businesses, just 0.074 percent of customers subsequently tested positive for COVID-19 within 14 days, based on data collected through Jan. 18, 2021.

That data represented customers served by 18,285 beauty professionals at the roughly 2,500 businesses represented in the survey.

The results of the association’s survey are bolstered by data from specific states and locations.

Two hair stylists in Springfield, Mo., continued to serve clients despite being symptomatic until tests confirmed that they had COVID. But of the 139 clients exposed to the two stylists during that time, no symptomatic secondary cases were reported. Test results came back negative for 67 clients who were subsequently tested as a result of that exposure. Both the stylists and the clients wore face masks.

In the District of Columbia, from August 1, 2020 to Nov. 26, 2020, personal care services were the source of COVID-19 exposure in just 0.9 percent of cases. For that report, personal care services included hair salons, barber shops, nail salons, waxing centers, and spas.

In May, ABC News reported its review of COVID-19 data “from states across the country” showed that specific outbreak settings—including bars, gyms, restaurants, nail salons, barber shops, and stores—only accounted “for a small percentage, if any, of new outbreaks after the pandemic’s initial wave in 2020.”

Yet at the front end of the COVID-19 pandemic, some individuals called for severe curtailment or closure of barber shops and hair salons.

In Oklahoma, one advocate for closing salons was Chad Richison, CEO of Paycom.

In a public letter sent on March 22, 2020, to Gov. Kevin Stitt, Richison demanded that Stitt temporarily “suspend personal-touch services in order to adhere to social distancing, which includes, but is not limited to, hair salons, nail salons, spas, and massage parlors.”

“We can’t afford not to act any longer, Governor,” Richison wrote.

Data now suggests that Richison’s own business may have been among a category of businesses associated with greater spread of COVID-19 than hairdressers.

In December 2020, officials in New York released contact-tracing data for more than 46,000 cases identified in that state. The data showed that just 0.14 percent of cases were contracted at hair and personal care services businesses. In contrast, a far greater share of cases—0.55 percent—were contracted at professional-services businesses, a category that payroll companies like Paycom would likely fall into.

In advocating for restrictions on hair salons in Oklahoma, Richison targeted the economic livelihood of individuals whose economic reality was far removed from his own as a billionaire. Those involved in the salon industry are overwhelmingly women and disproportionately minority.

A Professional Beauty Association report shows there were 655 salon businesses in Oklahoma in 2019 that employed 3,084 individuals. Seventy-four percent of Oklahoma’s salon businesses were owned by women, compared to only 33 percent of businesses in the state’s overall private sector.

Racial minorities also represented a disproportionate share of salon business owners in Oklahoma, as is typical nationwide. Fourteen percent of businesses in Oklahoma’s salon industry were African American-owned, versus just 4 percent of total private sector businesses. Another 19 percent were owned by those of Asian descent, compared to just 3 percent in all businesses statewide.

The COVID-19 shutdown in 2020 financially hammered many of those businesses.

An “Economic Snapshot of the Salon Industry” report issued by the Professional Beauty Association in July 2020 reported that the coronavirus “is having a devastating impact on the salon industry.” Between February and April 2020, the number of jobs at employment-based salons across the nation plunged by 84 percent, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

By April 2020, only 93,000 people were on payroll at employment-based salons, down from 569,000 in February 2020. That was the fewest number of salon jobs reported since national data has been maintained. In January 1972, the earliest available data, there were 259,000 employees working at beauty shops.

In comparison, the decline in the number of jobs in the nation’s overall private sector was just 16 percent during that time.

When states ordered COVID-19 shutdown of salons, it was the financial death knell for many.

Womply, a data-and-software business supplier, analyzed credit-card transaction data at businesses and designated a business as “closed” if it didn’t process a single transaction for three straight days starting on March 1, 2020, and considered the business to be open again once additional transactions resumed.

By April 14, 2020, Womply found that 89 percent of health and beauty businesses were closed, and 35 percent of those businesses remained closed by May 31, 2021, more than a year later.

According to the Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker, employment among Oklahoma’s low-wage workers, defined as those earning less than $27,000 annually, fell 26.4 percent from March 14, 2020 to April 15, 2020, and had not fully recovered a year after the COVID-19 shutdown. In Oklahoma, as of March 31, 2021, employment rates among workers in the bottom-wage quartile were still 9.4 percent below January 2020 levels.

The financial closure of salons created financial hardships that may have incentivized activity that increased the likelihood of COVID-19 spread.

“People were kind of bootlegging it in states that were closed down for a long time,” Melton said. “They were working illegally.”

She noted that the Professional Beauty Association supports professional licensing and does not endorse any activity that could cause the loss of a license, but Melton said the financial pressures created by shutdowns led many workers to engage in activity that they might not have pursued otherwise.

“It was just a really difficult time for everyone, because people needed income,” Melton said.

That proved the case in Oklahoma, where Oklahoma City’s NBC-affiliate KFOR reported that many hair stylists were making illegal house calls during the spring 2020 shutdown, including one instance where state Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City, was among those who paid a stylist to make a house call even as a statewide COVID-19 closure was in effect for “nonessential” services that included hair services.

Martin Kulldorff, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a vocal critic of COVID-19 shutdowns, has called lockdowns “the biggest public-health fiasco in history.”

Kulldorff wrote, “Ultimately, lockdowns protected young low-risk professionals working from home—journalists, lawyers, scientists, and bankers—on the backs of children, the working class, and the poor.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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