LAKEWOOD, Ohio – This is the best haircut ever.
Not just because I needed it (although it’s been eight weeks). And not just because I’m pleased with it.
This is the best haircut ever because it happened during the pandemic, and I actually felt safe. I felt safe at a time when indulgences like going to a salon, a shop or a restaurant can also feel like dangerous dalliances with the coronavirus.
Over the next few months, it is likely that many of these services will be returning – albeit in edited form – to Western New York. But they’re already happening in Ohio, which, controversially, is well ahead of New York in reopening. On Friday, salons and other personal-service businesses such as tattoo and piercing parlors and massage therapists were allowed to have customers. Ohio restaurants could welcome diners beginning that day, though for outdoor seating only. Retailers were allowed to reopen three days earlier.
I was curious what reopening looks like: Would crowds be flocking in? Would newly freed people be walking around with wide masks concealing their overjoyed faces? Or would people stay in – still cautious, and maybe even scared? Would businesses choose to open because they could? Or opt to wait?
Early Friday morning, I drove 184 miles to The Lock Loft, a salon in suburban Cleveland. It would be the first stop in a daylong itinerary to explore reopening in Ohio and imagine what the same might look like in Western New York. With Buffalo News photographer Sharon Cantillon, I also visited a popular Cleveland restaurant, a downtown glass-arts studio and a large retail marketplace an hour south of the city.
At points, it seemed clear that reopening can be done in a way that is thoughtful, comfortable and reasonably safe. It was also obvious that getting back to business is going to be painful and awkward, with more rules to follow and less money changing hands.
Then there were the moments when things seemed simply too normal: Crowds gathered, faces uncovered – all of it reminiscent of a not-so-long-ago time when nobody had heard of Covid-19.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? It is – in the moment. But then later, it’s not.
It’s actually a little scary.
Masks are in, blow dryers are out
My 10:15 a.m. hair appointment came with instructions: Bring only myself — leave my bag, laptop and jacket in the car. Nobody can loiter in the waiting area. Try to arrive five minutes early, and no more than 10 minutes late, since appointments are being spaced out to minimize the number of people inside.
“Text me when you arrive, and I’ll give you the OK to come in,” the stylist, Julie Tran, told me by phone the day before.
On the drive in, I found myself daydreaming about what the atmosphere would look like: Would people line up outside, standing courteously apart? Or maybe they would sit in their cars, waiting for their phones to buzz, summoning them inside for some much-needed hair TLC?
It was neither.
The sun was shining on an empty sidewalk outside The Lock Loft, which is on the ground floor of a brick building across from a pizzeria. Parking was easy to find. There were no frazzle-haired people clamoring to get in.
That doesn’t mean there was not a need. Owner Ashlin Bacik, whose husband is a barber, told me she heard there were men getting haircuts elsewhere at midnight, when the state eased restrictions.
Bacik is taking measures to ease back into business safely. She’s operating at half staff, so only four or five stylists are working at a time, which in turn means fewer customers are in the building. Bacik has used crates and poles to erect clear shower-curtain barriers between styling stations that aren’t 6 feet apart, and she has instituted rules designed to limit the spread of germs: Blow dryers aren’t used. Bacik has also instituted a masks-for-all policy: Staff and clients must wear them.
“It’s not political in any way, shape or form,” Bacik said. She didn’t elaborate on mask politics, but face coverings have been a hot-button point in Ohio. Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, ordered April 27 that all Ohioans wear masks in stores. After significant criticism, he pulled back the next day, telling ABC’s “This Week” that his order was “just a bridge too far. People were not going to accept the government telling them what to do.”
Bacik said she is enforcing her own mask rule to protect her staff, which includes two who are pregnant, and their clients.
“There are people in here who are really scared of getting sick,” she said. “They shouldn't have to make that decision, so I’ve made that decision for them.”
Before Tran cut my hair, I was asked to fill out a disclaimer form and a questionnaire, which put in writing that I had not been knowingly exposed to Covid-19 in the past two weeks or tested positive for it over the previous 30 days. I was the first customer in nine weeks for Tran, who told me the quarantine period was her first extended break in seven years of styling hair. When she learned a week ago that Ohio was allowing salons to reopen, she was leery.
“I was really nervous because everything is opening up in one week, which is crazy,” Tran told me. “That’s just like being all in the same room and opening doors, you know? But I feel like every protocol that we’ve made with our salon, we’re taking extra precautions. So I feel safe going back to work now that we’ve made that decision.”
Tran was cautious. When she was washing my hair after the cut, she gave me a small towel and said I could put it over my eyes and forehead if I felt more comfortable. Because we both had masks, I didn’t. But right before she began washing, she said, “Actually I’m going to put this on you, because I do have to get close.”
Later it struck me how thoughtful she was being: This was the one time during the appointment where she would have to lean over me. Her surgical mask leaves room for particles to escape, and my eyes – a common point of entry for the virus – were uncovered.
Putting that towel over my face was a small courtesy. Retraining your brain to recognize every possible way the virus could spread will be vital to getting us through any level of reopening. In Ohio, I came across it in ways that are inventive, and at times necessarily self-sacrificial, too.
'My job is to keep everyone safe’
Andrew Spott, the CEO and owner of a Cleveland marketing and advertising agency called VividFront, spent about $200,000 last year renovating an 1885 brick schoolhouse that serves as an office for his team of 25 employees. The VividFront staff members have been working from home since mid-March, and Spott has been buying testing and protective equipment for their eventual return. Among the products he has secured are thermometers and oximeters, both of which can be used to test for indicators of Covid-19: a high temperature or lower-than-normal oxygen level.
Spott asked his employees if they’d be willing to have their temperature and oxygen levels tested each morning as they enter the office. They agreed, seeing it – like he does – as a way of trying to keep their workplace healthy.
But there is another question: Are they ready to return to the office? Spott posed that question during a Friday staff meeting through an anonymous survey, and the answers were roughly split 50/50 between yes and no.
“My job is to keep everyone safe,” Spott said in a phone conversation, noting that he’s also looking at alternate, smaller-group scheduling plans for when people do return. “My job is to not put business before health,” he added. “It’s a line we have to walk.”
There is a distinct line, too, between what a business can do, and should do. Hartville, Ohio – a rural community about 55 miles south of Cleveland, not far from the Pro Football Hall of Fame – is home to an expansive indoor/outdoor vendor market. The Hartville Marketplace & Flea Market has more than 50 small businesses that rent space indoors where they sell an assortment of products and services from food to salon care to antiques.
The marketplace opened last week, with several safeguards in place. Shopping carts were divided into two rows: sanitized and unsanitized. Doorways are split into entry and exit lanes. Management is capping indoor capacity at one-third of the norm. Masks were hit and miss: Many vendors were wearing them, most customers were not. Social distancing was easy enough: By the time we arrived in Hartville late Friday afternoon, the shopping crowd had thinned out.
But Hartville can get quite crowded, especially on nice-weather weekends when the marketplace holds an outdoor flea market. Management is instituting safeguards to spread out vendors and control traffic, but even that’s not enough to make them feel confident about hosting the outdoor flea market on the busiest weekends.
General Manager Seth Coblentz, whose great-grandfather started the market in 1939 as a livestock auction, told me they’ll be canceling their outdoor Memorial Day weekend event. “We sometimes get 30,000 people just on the weekend,” Coblentz said. “We can’t manage that. There’s no way. It’s impossible, so we’re going to cancel it.”
Normality unmasked: It isn’t calming
My conversation with Coblentz on Friday afternoon threw my mind back a couple of hours, where in a Cleveland neighborhood known as Ohio City I saw the duality of how businesses are handling reopening. I came across a business at the end of a brick alley called Glass Bubble Project. I walked inside the door, which was framed by metal sculptures and graffiti, and saw owner Mike Kaplan working with one customer, a filmmaker named Ani Orris. Kaplan was helping Orris make a bowl, repeatedly heating and tapping the malleable glass into shape.
It had been two months since Kaplan could have paying customers like Orris walk through the door. He told me that financially, the reopening is helpful, but as a creative person, he embraced the respite from work.
Kaplan and his staff offer glass-art classes, but are limiting the groups to families that come as a unit – and that’s in a place with large vents, wide-open doors and furnaces generating high temperatures.
“Your chance of getting sick is a lot less in here,” said Kaplan, who was wearing a black fabric mask and a T-shirt that read “Work It Like A Pro BLASTER.” “I’m not going to a restaurant.”
Kaplan didn’t know this, but that last comment made me wince almost as if I had brushed my hand against a hot piece of glass. I had walked to his place from TownHall, a restaurant down the block that is well-known in Cleveland for its mix of health fare and VIP clientele. During the pandemic, TownHall – like all restaurants – had been limited to takeout and delivery. It had touted on social media that it would be open May 15 for patio service.
When Cantillon and I arrived at lunchtime, there was nobody at the host stand, so we walked into the restaurant, which has a small patio in front, and a bigger one in back, both with large doors that were fully open. It was starting to rain, and people were seated inside the restaurant. Cantillon and I shot each other looks, both wondering the same thing: Aren’t people only supposed to be outside? (The next day, I reached out to DeWine's communications office. While I didn't hear back, his staff did release a statement acknowledging reports from across Ohio of businesses ignoring safety guidelines and admonishing those establishments as “irresponsible” and warning they “need to understand that these guidelines will be enforced.”)
I also noticed that nobody seemed to be wearing masks: not the customers – which is unsurprising, in that it is difficult to eat with one on – and not the servers. (To be clear: I can’t say definitively that no one was wearing a mask; I can only tell you that of the dozens of people I saw, I didn’t note anyone who was.)
The restaurant’s public relations representative – whom I had reached out to the day before, hoping we could shoot photos and conduct interviews on the premises – flagged us down. She let us know the restaurant didn’t want to participate in our story. I asked if we could stay and eat lunch as paying customers, which we did. (Cantillon took photos outside the restaurant later.)
Our chairs were near the host stand, putting us in proximity to everyone who entered and exited the front door. I noticed one couple approaching the restaurant from the street. Both were wearing face coverings. They looked inside TownHall, then looked at each other, pulled off their masks and walked in.
There were a couple of subtle reminders during lunch that there's still a pandemic happening: The other parties in our vicinity were seated several feet away, at a social distance that I imagine will be acceptable when Ohio restaurants can open their dining rooms May 21. And when I paid our bill, I did it through a touchless option using my phone.
Everything else – from quick, maskless service to a reasonably steady lunch scene – seemed like something none of us has experienced since early March. It seemed … normal.
Which made it abnormal.
It was like a breather from reality, but then when you remember where we are as a society – how many people are sick, how many have died, how virulent this virus seems to be – you start rethinking what is actually normal.
Just before I sat down to write this story, I was pondering how much risk we took in even sitting in that restaurant. I looked up the Covid-19 numbers for Erie County (4,820 confirmed cases as of May 16) and Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland (3,156 confirmed cases as of May 15). Divide that into the population of each county, and roughly one of every 191 people in Erie County has tested positive for the disease. In Cuyahoga, it’s one of every 391.
That’s if the testing numbers accurately reflect how widespread the disease is – or isn’t. Truthfully, we don’t know. It’s one of many questions we’re trying to answer as we fight this pandemic. Here’s another one, and it’ll be essential this summer: As we reopen, what will actually work?
Finding safe ways to cut hair will likely be the easy part.