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Barbers share frustrations about being ‘sidelined’ in the state’s road to recovery

Last week, Gov. J.B. Pritzker unveiled a five-phased plan for reopening the state. It won’t be until the third phase — called “recovery” — that barbershops and salons will be able to reopen with restrictions.

Sean Santa, owner of Tonsor Barber Shop, stands outside his closed barber shop at 3935 North Pulaski Road Friday afternoon. | Annie Costabile/Sun-Times
Sean Santa, owner of Tonsor Barber Shop, stands outside his closed barber shop at 3935 North Pulaski Road Friday afternoon. | Annie Costabile/Sun-Times
Annie Costabile/Sun-Time

Sean Santa felt bitter last week when he learned golf courses were allowed to reopen but his barbershop wasn’t.

Since mid-March he’s been told his business, Tonsor Barbershop, 3935 N. Pulaski Rd., was non-essential and should be closed to limit the spread of COVID-19. Now, somehow, golf courses are more important?

“I mean, the whole essential and non-essential thing bugs me because I’ve seen people in the media and people in government with new haircuts,” Santa said. “Why are their haircuts more important than that of grocery workers and nurses?”

On Tuesday, Gov. J.B. Pritzker unveiled a five-phased plan for reopening the state. It won’t be until the third phase — called “recovery” — that barbershops and salons will be able to reopen, with restrictions. A Chicago plan unveiled Friday by Mayor Lori Lightfoot has similar steps.

There isn’t a timetable for implementing Phase Three. It depends on how many COVID-19 patients are admitted to hospitals or need ICU beds; both numbers must be stable or declining.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that we have to stay on the sideline,” Santa said. “We’ve been trained in the highest levels of sanitation and sterilization.”

Most of his barbers wore gloves and masks before the pandemic forced his business to shutter, he said. It’s also an appointment-based shop, so he can limit how many people enter.

Barbers’ sole income relies on breaking social-distancing rules, and unlike restaurants or retail stores, barbers can’t pivot to delivery or curbside pick-ups.

Santa doesn’t minimize the threat of COVID-19 and believes it’s important to flatten the curve. But the absence of support from the state and federal government has triggered a bit of desperation.

Sean Santa, owner of Tonsor Barber Shop, stands outside his closed barber shop at 3935 North Pulaski Road Friday afternoon. | Annie Costabile/Sun-Times
Sean Santa, owner of Tonsor Barber Shop, stands outside his closed barber shop at 3935 N. Pulaski Road Friday afternoon. | Annie Costabile/Sun-Times

Santa has applied for about five different loans and grants since mid-March, including the Small Business Association’s Paycheck Protection Program.

He has yet to receive any assistance.

“I’m a taxpayer,” Santa said. “I don’t understand why I’m not receiving any help.”

Self-employed workers like barbers typically don’t qualify for unemployment benefits because they don’t pay into unemployment insurance, but they are eligible for the PPP program.

To be approved for that program, Santa first had to file for regular unemployment to confirm he was eligible for nothing — which he did.

But he still can’t apply to the pandemic unemployment program until the portal opens on May 11 — almost two months after the first stay-at-home order was issued.

He’s hoping to get aid quickly so he can pay his May rent.

“It’s pretty stressful because I thought by now, I would’ve gotten some help.” Santa said.

Damon Dorsey, president of the American Barber Association, said COVID-19 hit barbershops across the country like a “tsunami.” It’s an industry filled with small neighborhood shops, and the lack of government help has created a level of anxiety never seen before, he said.

He would like to see shops open but under strict guidelines, such as appointment-based services only; mandatory masks and gloves for barbers and clients; and constant sanitization of shops.

“It would be great to have programs in place that could help barbers, but barbers aren’t seeing any of these benefits that are out there,” Dorsey said. “For example, none of our members received any support from the [Paycheck Protection Program].”

Dorsey said the loss of revenue have driven many barbers into the shadows and defying state orders.

Barber Chris Turcios, owner of Headquarters Barber Studio at 3040 W. Irving Park Rd., cuts hair before his business was order to temporarily shut down.
Barber Chris Turcios, owner of Headquarters Barber Studio at 3040 W. Irving Park Road, shown cutting hair before his business was ordered to temporarily shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Provided

Chris Turcios, owner of Headquarters Barber Studio, 3040 W. Irving Park Road, said he’s cut hair secretly since the stay-at-home order was issued. Some of those clandestine haircuts were police officers.

“I barely just got my stimulus check yesterday,” Turcios said Friday. “We are taking risks by doing these appointments, but I’m about to be three months behind on rent and have $2,000 in other bills.

“What else am I supposed to do?”

Turcios, who also has applied for government assistance, said he is now relying on crowdsourced funding to support him and his staff. He recently asked his 1,700 friends on Facebook to donate just $2.

Despite the uncertainty, Turcios has created a plan for when he is allowed to reopen. This includes moving barber stations farther away from each other, removing their waiting area and allowing only 10 people into the shop at a time.

“This is a scary moment, scary that I might have to close,” Turcios said. “Man, we just want to be able to provide for our families.”

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.