The coronavirus pandemic forced hair salons across Germany to shut their doors for six long weeks. Starting May 4, they can reopen under strict conditions — though it may mean fewer services and higher prices.
"Are you open again, Sevil?" A woman stands in the open door of Sevil's hairdressing salon in Berlin, an optimistic ring to her voice. She is holding up one finger, at the tip of which a red-painted artificial nail is peeling off. "It's all gone out of shape. It's grown way too long," the woman complains, pushing her fingers through her frizzy blonde hair, which she has tied back behind her head.
"Not until next week, and then we're booked out right through to the middle of May," says Sevil Bulut, shrugging her shoulders with regret. Instead of a comb and scissors, the 58-year-old master hairdresser is holding a yardstick in her hand and frowning a little as she surveys the chaos that her salon has become: six styling chairs and four black trolleys, each equipped with brushes, combs, curlers and hair clips, a bench with comfy cushions where customers used to sit and wait for their appointments, razors, Styrofoam styling heads with wigs. Practically nothing is in its usual place.
Phone ringing off the hook
Before her business can really restart on May 4, the salon will have to be reorganized. "Sorry, manicures are still not permitted," Sevil tells a disappointed potential customer. "We can hardly keep up with the number of people who want an appointment," says a delighted Dilara Akbay — Sevil's daughter and salon co-owner. As soon as it became clear that the salons could reopen after the six-week break due to the coronavirus pandemic, the telephone started ringing off the hook.
"We set up a call forwarding link at home. The first calls would come at seven in the morning and it would go right through to midnight," she said. They also received many requests via Facebook and Instagram. Sevil's appointment book is already full.
The rush of new business comes as a great relief for the two business partners. Sevil's eyes are full of tears as she looks back to March 23 — the day on which Germany's more than 80,000 hairdressing salons were told to shut down. "I have no financial reserves," she says, explaining that she was forced to put her team on furlough. She also has one trainee who is still at home and hoping to get back to work.
Surviving through state backing
The businesswomen got €5,000 ($5,500) in immediate financial assistance from the Berlin state authorities and a further €9,000 from Germany's federal authorities. And as part of a neighborhood solidarity scheme, regular customers also bought vouchers worth €1,600 for appointments after the salon gets back up and running.
"Without that money I wouldn't have known how to pay the rent for the salon. And it was only recently that the rent went up to €11.50 per square meter," says Sevil. Meanwhile, things were getting difficult at home. Sevil's husband, a machine operator, isn't set to go back to work before September at the earliest and is getting by on partial unemployment payments.
The reopening of the salon comes with some extra outlays: hairdressing capes, towels, disinfectants, soap, cleaning and washing products, disposable gloves and cloths all need to be paid for. Each cape, each towel, goes into the wash after just a single use.
Strict hygiene regulations have been put in place as a result of the pandemic: mouth and nose masks are obligatory for both employees and customers. No waiting areas, no magazines, no drinks, no customers' restrooms.
Hair must be washed in the salon before cutting; dry cuts, which are uncommon in many other countries but common here in Germany, are no longer allowed. "Mom, do I actually have to wash the hair before putting in streaks?" asks 23-year-old Dilara. After all, she adds, that works no better with freshly washed hair than doing an updo. "Wash it every time, my dear," is the answer, leaving Dilara is a bit frustrated.
High price of hygiene
All working material must be thoroughly cleansed before being used on the next customer. "Before corona, we soaked our brushes in soapy water. But that's not good enough anymore," Sevil explains. She purchased a sterilizer for €80. In just a couple of minutes, the brushes are disinfected using ultraviolet rays. It can also be used to clean scissors and razor heads.
So far the new purchases have cost €500. "Disposable cloaks are out of stock," Sevil groans as she flicks through a thick catalog of equipment for hairdressing salons. She explains how, just recently, she saw some cheap disinfectant in a drugstore and immediately wanted to buy six bottles. But the checkout woman refused, saying customers were limited to one each. She was persuaded that Sevil did have a professional reason when Sevil showed her the salon's Facebook page, and allowed her to take three. There was another customer waiting in front of the drugstore who had seen Sevil practically begging for disinfectant: "She gave me her bottle in addition to what I'd already got!"
Physical distancing a challenge
For Sevil, the physical distancing regulations present the biggest headache — no nearer than 1.5 meters (about 5 feet) is permitted. It is certainly cutting a fine line: 1.5 meters between customer and hairdresser is technically impossible, so it can really only apply between each styling chair. The salon, which measures just 80 square meters (861 square feet), is being divided up into zones marked on the floor with sticky tape, put in place by Sevil's husband, indicating where to stand and where to sit.
The salon has six styling seats. If each chair were to have its own security zone with a radius of 1.5 meters, then two would have to be taken out of action. The problem is that each hairdresser needs two seats to work two customers at the same time: "I can no longer offer perms because the customers would block one seat for hours on end. On top of which, they'd have to go back and forth to the washing area."
Time to rethink pricing
The salon has two washstands. They are very close to each other, but cannot be moved because the fittings are permanent. "I thought about installing a Plexiglas screen. But I've no idea whether that would be enough, " says Sevil, somewhat bemused. She tried for days to get advice from my hairdressers' guild, but the phone lines were always occupied.
When the salon is ready to go, Sevil and Dilara are going to have to take a very close look at pricing. One thing is certain: they are going to have fewer customers. They will also have to spend more time ensuring that they adhere to all the hygiene regulations. A wash, cut and dry used to cost between €39.50 and €47.50 for women, depending on hair length. Men were charged €21 for a dry cut; €28 for a wash and cut. "We'll certainly have to go up €30," Sevil calculates.
Will the customers mind the price hikes? "At first, they won't say a thing. After six weeks, they'll be happy to get their hair done," says Sevil. "But when things have calmed down, when they come in, I know what they'll be saying: 'Sevil, old friend, you're getting very expensive.'"