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Sonoma County hair stylists, massage therapists and yoga studios struggle to stay afloat during coronavirus shutdown

In the two weeks since most Sonoma County residents have been ordered to largely stay home, perhaps a fair number have devised a workout routine in place of that morning's hot yoga class. Or maybe, now that the monthly trip to a hair salon remains out of the question, some people are going online to learn how to cut their own hair.

As inconvenient as the shutdown has been for those of us cooped up inside, it's been even harder on the cosmetologists, massage therapists and yoga studios that are part of many of our normal routines. Those personal services establishments ordered closed as part of the countywide effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus are struggling to stay afloat financially. At the same time, they are also preparing for the new reality once they're eventually can reopen.

“It's the idea of: How can you instill confidence for people to come back into such a personal space?” said Sandy Natman, manager Elle Lui Hair Salon in Santa Rosa.

Only businesses that provide essential products and services, such as grocery stores and gas stations, are allowed to continue operating under the county's three-week, stay-at-home directive. It is set to expire April 7, but appears likely to be extended by county health officials. It's already taking a financial toll broadly across the county's service and manufacturing industries, and many in the large local service sector are collectively shedding thousands of jobs.

Robert Eyler, a Sonoma State University economics professor, said the county's unprecedented public health emergency shutdown would be especially hard on personal services providers.

“Most are smaller businesses or sole-proprietorships, so it's going to be very tricky for some to remain in business,” Eyler said.

Natman's salon, like most others across the county, has temporarily let go all 26 members of its staff. She's closely monitored the federal stimulus package - signed by President Trump on Friday - which includes more than $370 billion in emergency loans and financial assistance to small businesses.

Even if that money is enough to keep her business from going under, she's concerned people might not feel entirely comfortable coming in close contact with hair stylists once the salon reopens. “You can't cut hair with gloves or do coloring from 6 feet away,” Natman said.

Veronica Passalacqua, co-owner of the Beauty Spot in Santa Rosa, agreed and said taking extra cleaning measures and communicating those sanitation efforts with clients will be key.

“We're licensed in disinfection, and we are continually educating ourselves on how to protect ourselves and our clients,” she said.

Another worry, especially for larger salons like Natman's, is whether people's growing reliance on online shopping will continue after the county's shelter-in-place order is eventually lifted. Her business generates its largest profit margin selling bottled shampoos and conditioners, so she plans to start selling those products through her website.

“Retail really supports the service industry,” she said. “We're concerned about how commerce itself changes over this long expanse of time.”

Jeff Renfro, co-founder of Yoga Hell in Petaluma, is already moving his business online. Using the increasingly ubiquitous videoconferencing service Zoom, he's started live-streaming yoga classes to studio members, most of whom have agreed not to cancel their memberships, he said.

“We're having to all of the sudden become producers and cameramen in a very short amount of time,” Renfro said. “But we think we're offering a good product.”

Renfro said the streaming videos are even attracting new members and that he'll likely continue producing them after he's able to hold class again in person. He and his wife and co-owner, Lynn, also plan to remodel a section of the yoga studio, in part to make it easier to clean.

“I think we might see several years of people being extra germ crazy,” he said.

Tim Holt, a licensed massage therapist, also started using Zoom to teach body-working classes through a massage school in Fairfax. But actually giving a massage isn't something that can be done remotely, and he's no longer able to see his 10 regular clients. While Holt remains somewhat financially secure, he's worried about other massage therapists who depend on a steady stream of clients.

“This is a gig economy kind of world,” Holt said. “For most people, their income comes from several different sources.”

Although some personal service businesses have increasingly hired stylists and instructors as full- or part-time employees, a large portion of the industry relies on independent contractors.

As a result, those self-employed workers haven't been eligible for the same state unemployment benefits.

The emergency federal stimulus package, however, is expected to fund a program allowing those contract workers to receive half of their state's average unemployment insurance through the end of the year, in addition to $600 a week for four months. On top of that, all workers that earned up to $75,000 last year will receive a one-time $1,200 check.

Veronika Lenzi runs her own massage practice in Petaluma. Now that she can't see clients, she's applied for unemployment benefits, which she hopes will give her enough cash cushion to eventually get the business restarted.

Still, she acknowledges seeing clients again will carry a certain amount of risk.

“It's a personal decision that you make,” Lenzi said. “How do I know that somebody might have been in contact with someone else who could spread it to me?”

The Press Democrat wants to know what stories you see emerging and what you're experiencing locally during the shelter-in-place order. Reach out to us at coronavirus@pressdemocrat.com.

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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