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Stylists Brace For New Order — With An Assist From A Boston City Councilor

Dorchester hair stylist Shanita Clarke knows the state guidelines on plying her trade while social distancing. But she says it’s daunting to have to navigate the rules on your own — and to assume that the whole industry will operate in accordance with the guidelines.

“We were going through the new regulation and there's so much stuff — granted then you're in hair school, you have to learn sanitation. But this is on a different level," Clarke said.

Thanks to a new initiative, Clarke is among 60 barbers and stylists who won't have to navigate the COVID-19 hair styling world alone.

COVID Business Ready comes out of the office of City Councilor-At-Large Julia Mejia, who chairs the council's small business committee. The program, aimed at black and Latino business owners, is somewhat unorthodox: It's not a formal city offering, and Mejia is partnering with an advocacy group to finance it.

A section from the state's guidelines dictating how to operate barbershops and hair salons when reopening.

The program will consist of 12 hours of training at the beginning of June, covering  topics including "workplace safety and wellness, financial analysis, customer experience, marketing during COVID, and capacity planning, according to the project's landing page.

Mejia says half the sessions will be in English and half will be in Spanish — it took just a day for the Spanish trainings to be fully booked. While the program is for businesses in Boston, Mejia says she got requests from Latino barbershops as far away as Brockton and Lowell.

The goal, Mejia says, is to help them adapt to a new way of doing business.

“It's also a great marketing tool to help the community feel safer about walking into some of these businesses," Mejia said.

Mejia says she wants to work with the mayor and other councilors on the initiative. The mayor's office says officials have been meeting directly with salon owners to hear concerns around reopening requirements, and will provide digital technical assistance to businesses in need.

But some stylists in the city say they feel like a forgotten industry, ravaged by the COVID-19 economy and now forced to comply with guidelines that will sharply limit their operations.

Services like eyebrow trimming and manicures are not allowed under the state's reopening guidelines — and chairs need to be kept at least six feet apart. That could mean serious disruption for some businesses, says former salon owner Christie Lindor, who runs the management consulting firm that Mejia is working with to organize the trainings.

Lindor says there’s a spectrum among these businesses: on one side, those who are highly formalized and sophisticated.

"But then ... within the same community, [some] don't have a website, they're going to have to go from being cash-only to incorporating some sort of contactless payment method," Lindor said.

"They're going to go from being completely walk-in where there's usually a jam-packed waiting room — to having to go by appointment and staggering employee shifts.”

The ultimate question now is this: will the shops be able to make a profit while offering a limited amount of services to fewer customers?

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