March 25, 2021

By Sandra Millon Underwood
Professor, UW-Milwaukee School of Nursing

Pam Young

Prior to the pandemic, small businesses were one of the fastest growing segments in our nation. This changed with COVID-19. A survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank states that three out of every 10 small businesses in the U.S. say they likely won’t survive without additional government assistance during the coronavirus pandemic. Considering that there are almost 30 million small businesses in the U.S., that means 9 million small businesses are at risk of permanently closing their doors in 2021. Unfortunately, this is even more of a reality for minority-owned businesses, where eight in ten businesses may not survive, even after receiving help from Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and other small business relief efforts.

Fortunately, patience, safe protocols and sheer determination have helped one of our nation’s oldest and most profitable businesses in the Black community survive—the beauty industry. The Black beauty entrepreneur is nothing new. In the early 1900s, Madame C.J. Walker became a self-made millionaire, thanks to her hair care products. Her teacher, Annie M. Turnbo Pope Malone, another Black beauty millionaire, is credited with being the founder of the Black hair industry, according to the Black Owned Beauty Supply Association. Essence. com published a study that revealed African Americans spend $1.2 trillion each year in the Black hair care industry, and that number was projected to rise to $1.5 trillion by 2021. That projection will likely not happen now because of the pandemic. Local beauty salons and stylists have been challenged to maintain their clients during the pandemic—even after following Wisconsin’s health and safety guidelines.

Felecia Boyd

“I’ve been a stylist for more than 35 years and when this happened (pandemic), I lost a lot of customers. Some were afraid to come to the shop and some contracted the virus. These past few months have been slow, but I’m hanging in there, and hopefully business will soon pick up,” said stylist Pam Young.

“We’ve done everything the state has mandated to ensure we have safe protocols in place. We don’t take walk-ins; clients must have appointments. We can only work on one customer at a time. We wear masks and require our clients to wear them. We sanitize chairs, sinks and workstations. We even have air purifiers in the salon. We’ve done all we can and more to ensure the safety of our clients and coworkers,” said Young.

Another stylist, Felecia Boyd, who also works part-time as a stylist at a funeral home echoes Young’s sentiment.

“We check temperatures of employees and clients, our stations are spread out—every other station is now vacant to ensure social distancing—and after each customer, we sanitize our workstations. One of the challenges for me has been to book clients strategically so that appointments are not overlapping. That hurts financially, too. I’ve had to learn to work on one client at a time and increase my speed to ensure that I complete one client before another arrives,” said Boyd.

Jeanette Davis

Jeanette Davis, said that while she’s suffered a financial loss due to COVID-19, she’s glad that she was able to tap into some programs that were available to small businesses to help stay afloat. “Many of my clients are older so once the pandemic hit, they didn’t feel safe, even after we explained the safety protocols we put in place. Right now, we’re still operating at 25 percent capacity—no walk-ins—and we keep the doors locked to prevent people from entering. Clients want to come where they feel safe and, thankfully, several of them have complimented us on our salon’s protocols because we’ve gone that extra mile in following safety mandates,” said Davis.

While Black beauty salons have experienced some declining business resulting in revenue loss, as more and more individuals get vaccinated, clients are slowly returning to these ‘houses of beauty’ to get their hair, nails, and toes back ‘in order.’ As more people get vaccinated, Young, Davis and Boyd are happy to see their clients returning.

“This past week I saw an increase in some of my older clients coming back because, as they get vaccinated, they are feeling safe to return. I’m grateful and happy to see them again. Many clients are long-time customers, so you miss those relationships. They are not just customers, but have become friends,” said Boyd.

Vaccinations will play an important role in the beauty industry bouncing back— particularly for older and at-risk clients. All three stylists said they are listening to their clients and encouraging them to get the vaccine. Moreover, while Boyd is the only stylist of the three that has received the vaccinations, the other two will get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible.

Dr. Sandra Millon-Underwood with a hairstylist

“I was fortunate to be able to get vaccinated because I also work part-time for a funeral home, so when the owner’s full-time employees were eligible to get vaccinated, he was nice enough to include part-time staff as well,” said Boyd.

Young is patiently awaiting her turn for the vaccination, but in the meantime, she’s encouraging her eligible clients to get the vaccine.

“I can’t wait till it’s my turn. I have three sisters who work in group homes and they’ve already received their vaccines. I’m planning to get it as well. I remember a 90-year-old client telling me that she wasn’t going to take the vaccine. She made a comment about not wanting to be a guinea pig. I have a big family and we haven’t been able to get together in person for more than a year. Yes, there’s some hesitation in the Black community about getting the vaccine because of historical abuse, but I plan to get the vaccine,” said Young.

Davis agrees with Young and is doing her best to help set the record straight with clients and help dispel myths.

“We have open conversations about the vaccine in the salon. I remind people who are leery of getting the vaccine that they take other vaccines, such as flu shots, and other medications. We must take it (vaccine) because the Black community will be constantly reinfecting each other if we don’t. We already have existing health disparities. I’m glad to see that more clients are beginning to come around and planning to get the vaccine. Educating and motivating people to get the vaccine when it’s available to them is important. We are helping spread the word about the benefits of getting vaccinated,” said Davis.

In Milwaukee, recent reporting showed that nearly 150,000 white individuals in Milwaukee County had been vaccinated, compared to only 25,000 Black individuals. To help close this disparity gap, beginning on March 22, anyone 18 years of age and older who lives in specific zip codes (see below) can get vaccinated. Targeted strategies like this should help address concern expressed by Boyd.

“I wish the African American community would become a little more accepting of the vaccine. I know there has been some bad history and distrust related to medicine and African Americans, but we really need to get the vaccine,” said Boyd.

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The Healthy Eating and Active Living Milwaukee (HEAL) is a culturally-tailored program that aims to provide education, resources to secure healthy foods, and active living supports for adults at-risk for developing lifestyle-related diseases; and, to empower adults to make changes in their physical and social environment to improve nutrition and physical activity. ‘Like’ their Facebook page that’s full of videos of healthy recipes and low-cost, no-cost exercise.