COVID-19: How One Delaware Barbershop is Managing its Reopening

Our special reporting on COVID-19 may focus on communities outside Philadelphia because many of our student journalists are now temporarily located outside of the city. Instead, our reporters will cover how the coronavirus is impacting their own communities from across the country and around the world. We will return to hyperlocal coverage of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods as soon as possible.

Barbershops and salons were among many of the businesses forced to shut down in March due to the spread of the coronavirus. The closure of barbershops, due to the risk of an infection spread in close quarters and through personal contact, left many wondering whether they should cut their hair themselves or wait until barbershops reopened.

Little did they know that getting a haircut would be drastically different when shops did reopen.  

At The Unique Touch, located at 25 Prestbury Square in Newark, Delaware, the scene is very different from before the pandemic. The waiting area, usually packed, is now filled with empty seats. Customers receiving a haircut keep masks on, and the barber chairs are now spaced 6-feet apart from each other.

“COVID-19 has affected the business a lot,” said Charles Tillman, a barber at The Unique Touch and cousin of the owner. “People don’t come and get their haircuts as much as they used to.” 

The Unique Touch reopened on June 2, following Phase 1 of Delaware’s economic reopening and recovery plan. Delaware state policy now requires that haircuts must be provided by appointment only, with a minimum of 15 minutes between appointments for proper cleaning. Clients waiting for appointments must wait in their cars, and salons and barbershops should not exceed 30% occupancy. 

At The Unique Touch, this usually means one barber and one customer in the building at a time.

The shop has implemented new policies and hours to ensure a safe and sanitized haircut.

Upon arriving at the barbershop, customers must sign a waiver, their temperature has to be taken at the door, and a mask must be worn at all times. 

Nathan Thomas, a longtime customer who has been getting his haircut with Charles Tillman since 1997, said he feels it’s safe to get a haircut as long as the barbershop follows protocols.

“They wear a mask, sanitize the equipment, and take my temperature,” Thomas said.

Thomas used to come to the shop every other week. But now, he plans on coming every three weeks and gets a shorter cut than he usually does so that he doesn’t have to come quite as often. Or, he’ll have his wife cut his hair to avoid coming in contact with COVID-19 while out of the house. She cut his hair while the shop was closed. 

“It wasn’t a professional job, but it got the job done,” he said.

The shop also offers new hours, from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, opening two hours earlier than it used to, in order to better serve essential workers and accommodate the cleaning that takes place between appointments.

Jamar Reed, who has been cutting hair at The Unique Touch for 13 years, said that COVID-19 guidelines have caused an inconsistent workflow, which has discouraged customers from coming back. But he is also happy to at least be working again. 

“It was hard to make ends meet, but I just had to dig into my savings to pay the bills,” he said.

Since The Unique Touch has reopened, business has been slower. Not many people come as often to receive a haircut as they used to, but when they do, they may come every three weeks instead of every two, as Thomas does. Or they don’t come at all, according to Tillman.

“Business is just not the way it used to be,” Tillman said.

His business also took a significant financial hit during the state-mandated two-month closure. However, raising the prices to make up for lost revenue is not an option. 

“It would not help our cause,” he said.

Tillman said raising the prices would likely discourage customers even more. Instead of coming in every two weeks, customers may come only once a month if they see a surge in prices, he said.

In addition, although the new guidelines are to help to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Tillman worries the precautions may make customers skeptical that getting a haircut is safe during the pandemic.

Other policies, like letting only one client in at a time and locking the doors between haircuts, have also led to a slowdown in business, Reed said. 

After appointments, barbers focus on sanitizing their workspace to prepare for the next client. Repeating the task of taking the customer temperature, ensuring that a mask is being worn, and filling-out a liability waiver all add a significant amount of time to each appointment and lowers the volume of customers the shop can accommodate on any given day.

Looking toward the fall, Tillman believes that the worst has yet to come.

“I have been doing this for 26 years and I look at it as getting worse when it gets cold outside,” he said. “It already has changed a lot of people’s lives, but I think barbers will consider other courses of employment.”

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