Richie Ramirez first locked the doors of his barber shops in Isla Vista and Montecito in late March, alongside numerous other businesses in Santa Barbara County that were forced to temporarily close under Governor Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home orders.
He looked forward to reopening soon but didn’t expect the cycle to keep repeating itself.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Ramirez said he has shuttered and reopened his barber shops three separate times, turning a profit for only six weeks out of the last six months.
“Every time we reopen, we’re basically restarting the business,” Ramirez said.
Under guidance from the California Public Health Department and the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology, Ramirez has again reopened, albeit with a stipulation — he and his barbers must serve clients outside.
Now, Ramirez and his barbers cut, trim and shave their clients’ heads on the sidewalk under a tent and with significantly fewer chairs.
Though he has been able to reopen both barber shop locations, the reopenings haven’t come without their caveats. Fewer chairs and no waiting space means less money, Ramirez said, noting that he can usually fit five customers in his I.V. location at once, which was often booked to capacity. Now he can only serve three customers at a time.
While the number of customers he and his barbers can serve has dwindled, his denominator — the price of rent — remains unchanged.
Now, he’s looking to the local landlords to ask what provisions can be made for struggling small businesses.
“We’re on the sidewalk cutting hair, but the rent remains the same,” Ramirez said. “At what point do the landlords step in and say ‘Hey, we’re going to help you guys’?”
“I understand that they have mortgages and bills to pay,” he added. “[But] they’re my business partner. They haven’t even called me.”
Operating outdoors limits his business to 30% capacity, Ramirez said. One way to increase capacity is to bring business back inside, though he’s uncertain when he can legally do so.
But even moving operations indoors again wouldn’t promise steady business for the barber shops, Mariay Tsushima, barber and manager at Richie’s Barber Shop I.V., said.
Business is largely contingent on the population of UC Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara City College students that normally reside in I.V., which has sharply declined as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent departure of students who returned home.
“This is a great job when we have school,” she said.
But Tsushima said Richie’s Barber Shop is not alone in the challenges it is facing.
She said “a lot of bigger-name” hair and beauty businesses throughout the state have vented their frustrations with the outdoor policy on social media. Working outside makes some services, such as highlighting or coloring, impractical without being able to wash the hair first, she said, sending a rift through the business models.
As a result, some industry professionals have put down their aprons and clippers in favor of a career with more stability, Tsushima said.
“I know of people who have had to quit and then just go work whatever they used to do, like serving or construction,” she said. “Just something other than this.”
Instability can wreak havoc on small businesses, Ramirez said, adding that strained support from patrons and the government worsens the problem.
Despite the new changes to operations, Ramirez said, customers still seem willing to come in for their normal services, all of which are priced the same as they were before the pandemic.
“Overall, people are happy. I think they’re a little confused as to why we’re outside. A lot of people think we are doing this by choice,” he said, “but we’re not.”
Ramirez said Santa Barbara County and state government public health departments sent him conflicting messages and last-minute warnings throughout the pandemic, creating an environment in which he feels as if “it’s almost like they don’t care about small business.”
“The day before we shut down — that’s when we got our heads up,” Ramirez said. “I never received an email, I never received a phone call, I never received anything saying that ‘Hey, you guys are gonna have shut that down.’”
Nancy Anderson, assistant county executive officer, said in an email to the Nexus that the onus is on small businesses to self-certify through an online program, otherwise “we do not have direct contact information to notify them of guidance” and upcoming mandates.
Anderson attributed communication delays between the county and local businesses to the fact that local governments learn about new state-imposed changes “at the same time as the general public,” which can take several days to trickle down and implement at the county level.
“For example, Hair Salons and Barbershops are regulated by the State Board of Barbering and Cosmetology that initially indicated that these businesses could not operate outside when indoor operations were closed,” she said. “It took them about two days to find an alternative to this for these businesses and they issued additional guidance for them.”
Though his business physically and financially isn’t where it was six months ago, Ramirez said he and his staff are happy to be open and have no plans to shut down unless told to do so.
Until his tent comes down, he said, customers can “get a haircut from a barbershop they trust.”