NEWARK, NJ — Kleen Kutz on Bergen Street is a business divided into two hemispheres: On one side, the sound of clippers collides with raucous male debate, and next door, women exchange banter while they receive any number of hair services.
Usually, there is laughter handy regardless of which side one chooses. But that ended on Thursday when owner Keer Oliphant was forced to close for the foreseeable future. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy called for “personal care” businesses, which includes all hair, nail and lash salons, to shut down indefinitely on Thursday in the wake of the coronavirus.
The city also shut down all non-essential retail and liquor stores in an effort to stave off the spread of the virus. The latest count of positive COVID-19 cases sits at 742 and nine deaths, two of which were from Newark.
“Typically, January and February are our slowest time of the year. People just started getting their taxes and stuff, so business had just started coming back,” Oliphant said Wednesday as she put a cape around her lone customer. “I don’t think there’s anybody on this earth that this isn’t going to be touched by this financially.”
Just this past weekend, Oliphant, who has operated Kleen Kutz for 22 years, was darting around from chair to chair as customers came pouring through the door, each one wanting to get their hair done before it was too late.
In stressful times, a trip to the salon or barber can be a much-needed exercise in self-care, but in black communities, salons and barbershops are neighborhood mainstays, centers where people congregate to socialize. To Oliphant, her employees and her clients, it is a loss that means a little more than just a haircut.
“It feels uplifting to go get your hair done. People come here, and they’re at their worst. But when their hair looks good, they feel better,” said Felisha Smith from Oliphant's chair as her trim commences.
With that trim also comes the familiar repartee between a hairdresser and client. What will Oliphant do if she’s forced to close? Speaking with a resigned sense of positivity, she greets the elephant in the room with humor.
“I don’t think we’re prepared to be closed for 30 days, it’s not like we had the chance to think about it,” she laughs. “Maybe we’re all just going to be poor. Anyone who thinks they’re above this, you’re not.”
Oliphant takes stock of the businesses on the block that have already succumbed to the pandemic — a restaurant, a Chinese-owned nail salon plagued by racist COVID-19 rumors. The funeral home next door can only allow 10 mourners into a service at a time and must seat them six feet apart.
In the barbershop, the guys predict doomsday scenarios. Like servers and bartenders, barbers and hairdressers don’t make wages if they don’t come in. There are no sick days or vacation days for these workers.
Knowledge, a barber of more than 30 years, has watched through thick-rimmed glasses as fewer customers walked through the door each day. He had been spraying down the chairs more thoroughly, especially the arms, where people tend to rest their hands.
“It’s slow, everybody’s scared,” he said. “Ain’t nobody going to give us money because we’re not working. If we don’t work, we don’t pay bills. You can’t prepare for it.”
Mayor Ras Baraka, who has led a charge to encourage black entrepreneurship in Newark’s growing business sector, has yet to announce how he will help locally owned personal care businesses, as well as their employees, stay afloat through the pandemic. A city spokesperson was unable to provide comment.
“It would be a great loss, we have a lot of people from downtown and City Hall who come and get haircuts. It would affect the whole community for blocks,” Knowledge said. “I have generations of individuals as customers.”