NEWARK, NJ — Wiping down a black vinyl salon chair, Keer Oliphant motions her client over and points an infrared thermometer at her forehead: all clear. The styling commences.
Back in March, Oliphant, the owner of Klean Kutz on Bergen Street, joined the legions of small business owners whose operations came to a standstill under COVID-19-related state orders. As the sweeping of trimmed locks across Oliphant’s floor ceased, the coronavirus swept over the state, leaving the 22-year veteran of the South Ward a lot of time to think.
“I was crying — to not be at work for that long? Especially Saturdays, because Saturdays are our day,” Oliphant said, blow-drying her client’s hair. “I watched TV until I couldn’t watch TV no more. I cleaned up until I couldn’t clean up no more, and then I just stressed for a while thinking about trying to get back.”
As of the first week of July, Klean Kutz is back, and cleaner than ever, according to Oliphant, who has turned the health and safety of her staff and clients into a kind of religion. In preparation for re-opening, Oliphant and her team turned the place inside out, removing all the chairs and equipment to sterilize every corner, sink and hairpin in sight.
Under New Jersey’s post-lockdown rules, salons must limit services by appointment only, perform temperature checks on everyone who enters the facility and ensure PPE, among other measures.
Rollers removed from the head of one woman go straight into a sink for an impending disinfectant bath. You can’t be too careful as a business owner, Oliphant says.
Oliphant is one of the more fortunate salon owners. With more than two decades of operation under her belt, she’s more financially established, with loyal clientele, very little debt and enough savings to survive a nearly four-month shutdown. She owns her salon equipment whereas a new business might still be renting their chairs and dryers.
But it hasn’t been easy — with no money coming in, Oliphant has applied for just about every type of small business benefit she could find through the city, state and federal government. She’s waiting on the acceptance of a rental assistance application to cover the cost of the space she uses for the half woman’s salon, half barbershop, which feels more like a good friend’s living room.
“In the beginning, people were calling me to get their hair done like I was the one who was crazy. ‘Why, why can’t you do it?’ Because it’s a pandemic!” she laughed. “But people weren’t caring.”
A local beauty parlor, like a lot of small businesses, often won’t qualify for state and federal loans due to the documentation required. Klean Kutz is one of them. Oliphant said the applications she encountered typically asked for at least three years of profits and loss, which not many salons can produce.
Other worries crept up on Oliphant in the still silence of the pandemic, too: What if people won’t have the money to get their hair done when the state reopens? What if they get into the routine of doing their hair themselves and don’t need her anymore?
But aside from the masks and near-constant disinfection, things aren’t too different at Klean Kutz, where people’s whole families come for the conversation as much as they do for the service. Some clients, Oliphant said, arrived in desperate need of help.
“I had a few customers who tore their hair up. One had a weave and tried to cut it out herself. I was like, ‘What happened?’ It was very bad,” she said. “People have been giving me great tips, telling me, ‘I appreciate you, I missed you.’ I’m really, really blessed.”
One client, who identified herself as Quetta, said what she missed most is having someone take the responsibility of doing her hair off her hands.
“It feels good when somebody else does your hair. Me, personally, I would rather relax and let someone else do it,” she said. “And the conversations that we have. It’s the vibe that’s good.”
In another corner, Sean Starkey, 25, gets his hair done for the first time since March. Hairdresser Rashanna Hicks styles months of growth into twists.
“I’ll feel like a new person after this,” Starkey said.
Just as Klean Kutz and its clients settle into a new routine, fears of another state-imposed quarantine are already on the horizon.
Nationally, 100,000 cases were reported over the weekend, with hotspots ripping through the American South and West. NJ Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday he has concerns about spikes happening elsewhere spreading to the state.
Knowing her shop likely won’t survive another multi-month shutdown, Oliphant tries not to let those fears consume her. Instead, she wishes for strong national leadership and a country where everyone can be on the same page about public health.
“I don’t wish nothing bad on nobody, but I’m going to tell you. If people don’t want to wear their masks, if God has the will, maybe they won’t be here to vote,” she said.