In a Central New Jersey shopping plaza, D. is cutting the hair of a longtime client. His voice, muffled as he makes small talk behind his face mask, and the low buzz of the clippers in his gloved hands, are the only sounds in the air.
The shop is dark and the television, which is usually blaring, is off because what the barber is doing is illegal and he doesn’t want to attract the attention of local police. When he finishes, D.—who, like others in this story, did not want to be identified by his full name for fear of fines or jail time —sprays the chair with Lysol and wipes it down.
“I've actually had police officers sitting out in front of the shop at times when I've been inside,” said the former Marine, who refined his barbering skills on military bases across Europe and the Middle East before opening his own shop more than a decade ago.
“I am concerned, but I’m a fisherman. I gotta’ fish. I can't make any money any other way.”
Barbershops are allowed to open this week in parts of Florida, as workers and customers around the country grow impatient with the shutdown of so-called non-essential businesses.
But in New York and New Jersey, considered the epicenter of the virus, officials are acting with great caution. The stay-at-home orders issued in March by Governors Andrew Cuomo and Phil Murphy largely remain in effect.
In New York, barber shops are considered “phase two” businesses, while parts of upstate that have met certain benchmarks have just been allowed to open up phase one businesses. In New Jersey, Murphy announced Monday that personal service workers would be allowed to reopen in the state’s third phase, but he offered no indication when that would begin. New Jersey is currently in the first phase, which allowed the return of “drive-in activities,” elective surgeries, and retail businesses that operate curbside.
That leaves personal services workers like manicurists, hair stylists, and barbers unable to practice their craft in order to gain income—at least not legally. Many are secretly working —sneaking clients into the back doors of their shops, or packing up their equipment and making house calls, because they need income to feed their families and pay their bills.
“While these are normally very law-abiding citizens, they have to do what they do to survive,” said Michael Busler, an economist and public policy analyst at Stockton University in New Jersey. He said it’s been hard for one-person small business owners to qualify for unemployment compensation, and the federal loan Paycheck Protection Program has proved challenging for everyone.
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Working underground allows these people to bring in money, he says, but there is also a down side—the workers going underground are likely not paying taxes.
“The government is losing tax revenue on the unpaid taxes,” Busler said.
Law enforcement agencies across New Jersey have been regularly issuing charges against businesses caught operating in violation of Murphy’s orders. The owner of a Paterson barbershop faces a fine of up to $1,000 and up to six months in jail after police caught him giving haircuts.
Beyond breaking the law, continuing to work carries another serious risk —becoming infected or infecting others.
A barber in Kingston, New York, made headlines last week when Cuomo announced that the man caught COVID-19 and may have infected more than a dozen people.
“You can’t really socially distance and do a haircut,” Cuomo warned.
Marcos, a Manhattan barber, said he continues to make house calls because he has a wife and toddler to support. But he recently had a scare after he went to a client’s house to give the man a haircut.
“I kept my mask on the whole time,” Marcos said. “I cut his hair in the bathroom. It was pretty close contact, but I had my gloves on everything that I needed to protect myself at the time, and I gave him a fade and I left.”
About a week later, Marcos learned on Instagram that the client had COVID-19.
He said it scared him, but he continues to cut hair because he needs the money. He has limited the number of clients he serves and has raised his prices in order to make up for the money that he is not able to make.
William, a hair stylist and makeup artist in New Jersey, said he went from working in a salon on reality television celebrities, to doing weaves in the secrecy of his basement apartment. He says he takes extensive steps to avoid transmission of the virus—including having clients wash their face and hands, and put on slippers that he provides.
But the clandestine operation is still unnerving. He said he was doing a client’s weave recently when someone knocked on his door and sent him and the client scrambling.
“We were ready to hide her in the bathroom,” he said.
It turned out to be a neighbor bringing him some mail.
William said he believes his work is essential for his clients because many of the professionals who do still have jobs want to look good when they appear on screen in a Zoom meeting.
“These are doctors and lawyers, people who are making deals,” William said. “They don’t want to be gray on camera. People still want to be beautiful.”