S.F. spa owners barely surviving pandemic

COVID-19 shutdown has made already difficult business ’impossible’

About two weeks before the first shelter-in-place order was issued in March, In-Symmetry Spa had already lost 50 percent of its customers, according to co-owner Candace Combs.

Since then, the Mission District spa, which offers services like massage, skin care and waxing, has not served a single customer.

Running a spa business was already an immense challenge before the pandemic, in part due to the labyrinth of permits and zoning regulations, Combs said. But the shutdown has pushed many spa businesses to the brink.

“It was a nightmare to do business in San Francisco before COVID. It is now impossible,” she said.

In-Symmetry received the federal government’s economic injury disaster loan and a loan from the paycheck protection program, but even with that help, Combs and her brother, the co-owner, are using part of their unemployment benefits to stay afloat. The business has accrued roughly $150,000 in debt and laid off all 15 employees.

The loan funds will run out, and even when the business resumes its spa services, it will need more financial relief to operate at a capacity of about 25 percent during a phased reopening.

“[In-Symmetry Spa] means everything to me. My business is my world,” Combs said.

In-Symmetry Spa will weather the public health crisis, she said. But the looming questions are: How much debt will the business bear when the public health crisis subsides? And how many customers will have moved out of the Bay Area by then?

Candace Combs, co-owner of In-Symmetry Spa, demonstrates how customers getting facials will be protected under a shield. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Candace Combs, co-owner of In-Symmetry Spa, demonstrates how customers getting facials will be protected under a shield. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Frustration among some spa owners is brewing because they see that medical spas and chiropractors, dentists and plastic surgeons are allowed to operate during the pandemic. Meanwhile, massage therapists, estheticians and cosmetologists, along with other employees at many spas, are forced out of work.

Spa services are also crucial for people’s mental health, a form of self-care that many seek to manage their stress, according to Sally Waters, owner of Studio Soothe, a spa business in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.

“We take care of people who are working too hard,” Waters said.

Until The City is removed from the state’s watch list and receives updated guidance, no further reopenings can happen, Dr. Grant Colfax, director of the Department of Public Health, said in a news conference Tuesday.

Other business owners are also frustrated. A coalition representing more than 60 small gyms and studios in The City filed legal paperwork last month to obtain the data and analysis that officials are using to justify the prohibition of indoor activities in gyms.

Lawyers representing the coalition then submitted a legal request to Mayor London Breed, the City Attorney and the Department of Public Health demanding they rescind orders prohibiting fitness studios from providing indoor personal training services, the coalition announced Friday.

Appealing to state officials, a group of businesses including spas, hair salons and tattoo shops, are planning to send a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, urging him to allow for a phased reopening.

Meanwhile, Studio Soothe has relied on retail sales since the shutdown. Without massage, waxing and facial services, however, the business has lost about $150,000 in revenues since the shutdown, upending Waters and her husband’s retirement plans.

All six employees at the spa were laid off. Studio Soothe received a loan from the paycheck protection program, but Waters said it comes with many restrictions. And like Combs, she fretted over accumulating debt.

Despite furloughs and layoffs at the two establishments she is involved in, Deedee Crossett, managing partner of the spa business Skin on Market in The City and owner of the San Francisco Institute of Esthetics and Cosmetology, is hopeful the industry will rebound from the pandemic.

“People are going to need us even more when we reopen,” she said, pointing to the importance of the spa industry for people’s mental health. “It’s not just about looking good and making sure that your acne is cleared up, or [that] your brows look good.”

Exactly when that reopening might come, however, remains unknown, according to Waters.

“We have no idea what the future holds for us. It’s incredibly stressful,” Waters said.


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