Shelly Ruiz, who rents a chair at Bubble Pop Electric Salon, is back at work doing hair indoors, taking all of the necessary pandemic-era precautions. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Hair stylist, colorist is optimistic about the return of The City’s salon services

Shelly Ruiz is happily back to work cutting and coloring men’s and women’s hair following a series of preempted dates on The City’s pandemic reopening schedule.

“We never thought salons would be in the final phase, along with movie theaters and gyms,” she said. “It was frustrating. We’re more sanitary than other high-touch places because we’re trained and licensed to deal with this stuff.”

By early summer, her regulars were jamming her inbox, seeking appointments. “I could’ve booked six days a week, 10 hours days for the month,” said Ruiz. But on the Friday before the Monday salons were set to reopen, the dates were adjusted due to a spike in coronavirus cases citywide.

“In June, they told us it wasn’t going to happen and then just stopped giving us dates,” she said.

Some of her clients, desperate for a refresh, went to neighboring counties where salons had tentatively reopened.

Observing how other beauty businesses adapted to the prolonged shutdown, Ruiz shook her head.

“They had partitions installed and then the partitions never got used.”

Some stylists tried outdoor and mobile set-ups, but at Bubble Pop Electric, the salon where Ruiz rents a chair, the shop’s owner and landlord worked together on a slow but steady reopening plan. The salon skipped the outdoor phase and held tight for the indoor, limited capacity reopening in September.

“But we decided after so many false starts, building an outdoor salon that could get shutdown at any time didn’t make sense. For what? A dry haircut? Cuts really only amount to 20 percent of a salon’s income. But when you’re open, you have to pay 100 percent of the expenses. It will be interesting to see how salons adapt.”

For independent contractors like Ruiz who qualified for pandemic unemployment assistance, “That extra $600 made a difference. It took off some of the stress and It made it possible to stay living in San Francisco,” she said,

“Coming into the salon, being around my clients and coworkers, being creative and social and making people feel good about themselves isn’t really work to me. I love my job and what I do,” she said. “I started working when I was 16 and never have taken a month off, let alone six.”

Not all of her styling colleagues have been as fortunate to return to salons or bookings on their calendars. Particularly hard hit are the workers on the special-event circuit who missed their entire spring, high summer and now fall seasons, watching as their work was scaled down, postponed or canceled entirely.

“A lot of them are really, really struggling,’ she said.

As it was, Ruiz had six weddings on the books that didn’t happen. With fewer necessary places to be, the average person’s need for salon services may seem less essential than ever before. And with so many coronavirus unknowns, customers, particularly those in higher-risk categories, have been slower to return.

“People are calling and want to know what the guidelines are,” said Ruiz, who’s working just three days a week now.

The shop runs several fans and opens doors to circulate air. “We keep it as open as we can, and do what we can to make everyone comfortable,” she said. Taking temperatures, constantly sanitizing and limiting the number of people, she’ll even take extra-precautions for her high-risk clients who still want a haircut. “I’ll come in early, sanitize and will do it again, an extra time, for that one client,” she said.

“I understand people wanting a sense of normalcy,” she said. Generally doing her own hair and nails, the stylist even asked her roommate to give her hair a trim during the shutdown. “She’s an architect and figured she could cut a straight line across my back,” she said, happy to return the favor.

Doing hair for the last 15 years, 13 of them in the Bay Area, Ruiz grew up on the central coast in a close-knit family now scattered up and down the state. She made a decision for herself and the rest of her family to generally maintain distance for everyone’s safety.

“I followed shelter in place strictly,” she said.

She waited three and a half months to see her sister and young niece and nephew in Oakland.

“At that point we didn’t know the extent of what it was so I parked outside and stayed in the car. It was hard to explain to the kids, 5 and 7, why they couldn’t hug their tia,” she said.

Her entire family tested before it was decided they’d gather for a baby shower in Los Angeles to welcome her brother’s first child.

“I was really conflicted but I hadn’t seen my other sister or my parents,” she said. “I couldn’t live with myself if anyone got infected, knowing it’s so simple to avoid spreading the virus.”

Ruiz recently moved from a small Marina District apartment to a larger, less expensive one. She enjoyed the neighborhood’s natural outdoor beauty on walks during her time off, but navigating it throughout the reopening has been a little trickier.

“A couple of weeks ago I was looking for something to eat after work at about 8:30 and there were so many people out on Chestnut,” she said. “On another Saturday afternoon, on Steiner and Chestnut, forget it: There were easily 200 people without masks on. I was tempted to stop and take a picture.”

“The patio areas overflowed, people shoulder to shoulder, or in the middle of the street with drinks without masks. Are you serious? You’re pretty much forced to walk through groups of unmasked people,” she said.

“I understand businesses are struggling,” she said, doing her part to support her local restaurants. “But strangers will come up to the table and ask, without a mask, ‘Are you using this chair?’ And we’re like no! Just take it and leave now, please!” A couple of times she changed her mind and took her order to go.

She likes the way Alameda’s Al Fresco Dining Park has handled its outdoor food, drink and entertainment set-up.

“It just feels really safe, with one way in and out,” she said. She also tried the patio at the Riptide in the Outer Sunset where she spent a recent warm Sunday afternoon with friends, listening to the all-instrumental, High Tide Trio.

“Everyone was really respectful with masks on. Hanging out outside, hearing live music, brought a spark of life back into me,” she said. “I saw friends I used to see twice a week for the first time in six months. It felt nice and was very much needed.”

She remains optimistic about the future of salon services, nightlife and life in general here, though noted there may be fewer options for venues and services by the time everything shakes out.

“It’s like San Francisco is getting a reset. We’ll see who sticks around,” she said. “But people in some way or form are going to want to get their hair done and to feel like themselves again. You can’t just stop getting your hair done, completely and forever.”

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.

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