Black hair stylists weigh risks of getting back to business in reopening states

Minorities have been disproportionately impacted by the virus' spread.

April 23, 2020, 12:32 PM

The stream of customers pouring into First Impressions Barbershop in Atlanta each day convinced owner Tony Stephens the time was right to open another barbershop earlier this year.

Then COVID-19 hit, quickly striking within Atlanta’s large African-American community, forcing him to close both locations and send his barbers home for several weeks without pay.

Stephens is among the many minority small business owners uncomfortable with opening up when Georgia permits business for hair salons, barbershops and tattoo parlors across the state to resume and stuck between the prospect of either choosing safety or helping their employees get income.

After several days of thinking about reopening, Stephens decided the risks outweighed the benefits.

PHOTO: A man walks past a barber shop days before the phased reopening of businesses and restaurants from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions in Atlanta, Georgia,  April 21, 2020.
A man walks past a barber shop days before the phased reopening of businesses and restaurants from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions in Atlanta, Georgia, April 21, 2020.
Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

“I’ll be honest with you I’m a little scared, and I’m not really trying to go in right now, he said. “Most of my barbers are contractors, they’re not employees and I can't even get a loan now."

Blacks comprise more than 50% of the confirmed COVID-19 cases within the state of Georgia with some 5,200 cases among African-Americans statewide.

Asked how hair stylists and barbers can safely socially distance even though the manner of their work requires them to be up and close, White House Coronavirus Taskforce Director Dr. Deborah Birx said “I don't know how, but people are very creative. So, I'm not going to prejudge, but we have told people very clearly and the president guidelines made it very clear about the expectations of phase one.”

President Trump indicated at a recent White House Taskforce briefing that he spoke to Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and said he opposed the decision to reopen some small businesses.

"They can wait a little bit longer, just a little bit not much because safety has to predominate, we have to have that," Trump said. "So I told the governor very simply that I disagree with his decision, but he has to do what he thinks is right."

According to federal guidelines, states must experience a 14-day decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations before they can safely reopen. But that has yet to happen in Georgia or the other southern states with sizable black populations—Tennessee and South Carolina—also set to reopen some businesses.

The state of South Carolina plans to reopen furniture, jewelry, sporting goods and retail stores. But barbershops, beauty salons and gyms must remain closed for now. Tennessee hasn’t released any more details beyond saying that a vast majority of businesses will be allowed to reopen on May 1st.

Health experts say such a decision to reopen small businesses by the governors of these states could potentially put an already vulnerable racial group susceptible to COVID-19 at increased risk of contracting the disease further complicating the problem of ensuring there are enough tests for people showing verifiable symptoms.

Georgia hair stylist Brenda Gee, 61, says her doctor told her to presume that she had the coronavirus, when she showed up to an urgent care center with shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing. Even with those symptoms her doctor didn’t give her a coronavirus test, but told her to presume that she had it and to self-quarantine.

When businesses open Friday her salon will remain closed.

“I am struggling, but if I don’t live to spend the money I get, what good is it to open?” she said. “It just doesn’t make any sense, it’s almost like they’re trying to give us a death wish.”

PHOTO: Atlanta hair salon owner Brenda Gee, who says she won’t reopen her shop, is seen styling a client’s hair.
Atlanta hair salon owner Brenda Gee, who says she won’t reopen her shop, is seen styling a client’s hair.
Courtesy Brenda Gee

Though data from the Georgia Department of Public Health show the number of new COVID-19 cases could be on the decline, medical experts don’t believe they have been going downward long enough to safely reopen small businesses.

“I worry very much that communities of color who’ve already been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 will be affected by the kinds of policies that the governor of Georgia and others are enacting in terms of the kinds of businesses that they’re reopening,” said Dr. Harry Heiman of Georgia State University’s School of Public Health.

Despite Georgia Republican Gov. Kemp’s decision permitting small businesses statewide to reopen, the state’s local NAACP chapter is asking minority business owners in particular to avoid reopening if they can.

“Our main message is to continue to shelter in place, continue to socially distance and continue to quarantine as necessary,” said James Major Woodall, NAACP Georgia State Conference President.

Several mayors across the state complain that Governor Kemp, a Republican, did not consult with them before making a decision to reopen.

“I work very well with our governor and I look forward to having a better understanding of what his reasoning is, but as I look at the data and as I talk with our public health officials, I don’t see that it’s based on anything that’s logical,” said Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, a Democrat, on CNN’s Cuomo Prime Time.

According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, Dougherty County, which covers Albany, is home to one of the largest outbreaks of coronavirus outside of the Atlanta metro area.

More than 1,400 cases were reported in the county on Tuesday with approximately 70 percent of those cases being linked to African-Americans.

“Me personally, as an African-American female, I do believe that those types of businesses should not be opened at this particular time,” said Ruth Jordan, the minority business enterprise manager for Charleston, South Carolina. “People need to think twice about using those particular services.”

State health officials say more than 4,600 people in South Carolina have contracted the coronavirus with nearly 60 percent of those cases impacting African Americans.

Tennessee has had over 7,200 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 152 deaths so far.

Public health experts believe cities across the state including Memphis and Nashville with large black populations would be at increased risk once small businesses reopen.

“The idea that we’re moving forward without having the right things in place—testing, PPE—is incredibly irresponsible,” said Dr. Harry Heiman.

This report was featured in the Friday, April 24, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.

"Start Here" offers a straightforward look at the day's top stories in 20 minutes. Listen for free every weekday on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, the ABC News app or wherever you get your podcasts.