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Beauty And Aesthetics Workers In Oregon Navigate Returning To Work Amid Coronavirus

Hair stylist Ceanna Jennifer Lee works with a client on the first day of her salon's reopening on June 6, 2020, Beaverton, Oregon.
Hair stylist Ceanna Jennifer Lee works with a client on the first day of her salon's reopening on June 6, 2020, Beaverton, Oregon.

As hair salons, tattoo studios and other businesses begin reopening around Oregon, people are navigating how to get back to work in fields where close physical contact is required.

Ceanna Lee is going back to work at her salon, MODA Studios, in Beaverton.

It’s her first time being back in the space working since Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced her stay-at-home order in March — shutting down businesses like hair salons, tattoo studios, beauty spas and others that weren’t designated as essential businesses.

“Yeah, it does feel a little bit surreal being back,” Lee said, standing next to her workstation. 

Parts of the Portland area have been directed to stay home for nearly three months due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now, people in the beauty and aesthetics sector who work closely with clients are wrestling with how to safely do their jobs as they return to work.

Lee is in an interesting position. She owns two locations of MODA Studios — one in Beaverton, where Phase 1 of reopening has already started and salons are allowed to operate, and one in Portland, in Multnomah County, the only county in the state that has not entered the first phase of the governor’s reopening plan.

Lee said she has had businesses fail in the past, and, because of those experiences, she had money saved up to hold her over during her salons’ closures. Still, now that the time’s come, she said opening has her and the other stylists who work in her Beaverton location feeling uneasy, even with a lot of preparation.

She said she has nearly 100 clients on a waiting list.

She has purchased personal protective equipment like face masks, and she worked with the stylists at her salons to come up with sanitation plans and new procedures with clients.

“So first of all, if you are a client, I need you to fill out a pre-screen questionnaire. Then when you come into the salon I need you to read the policies and procedures, sign that, and then we have another guideline,” Lee listed. “And then we have posters posted throughout the entire salon and we take your temperature.”

Even with all of the preparation, Lee said it’s nerve-wracking to be included in the first wave of businesses reopening during the pandemic.

“Honestly, no. I do not wish we were in Phase 1,” she said. “I’m being honest. I’m not mentally prepared. I’m not physically prepared, even though we have all of our PPE equipment, all of our paperwork prepared, but there are just so many steps.”

Hair stylist Ceanna Jennifer Lee on the first day of her salon's reopening following COVID-19 closures on June 6, 2020 in Beaverton, Oregon.
Arya Surowidjojo/OPB
Hair stylist Ceanna Jennifer Lee on the first day of her salon's reopening following COVID-19 closures on June 6, 2020 in Beaverton, Oregon.

For people working in beauty and aesthetics-focused industries in Multnomah County, reopening will soon be an option. The county applied for reopening last week and could be approved to enter Phase 1 as soon as this Friday.

Charlisa Harris, the owner and sole stylist at Chadowboxx Salon in Troutdale, has been in the beauty industry for 23 years.

Harris, like others who work in close physical contact with clients, said she’s found ways to adapt while closed.

Mainly, she’s successfully continued to sell her hair products, including a quarantine kit which includes products like shampoo, conditioner and styling butter and even the combs, brushes and clips clients need to do their own styling.  

“I’ve still done some drop-offs, curbside pick-ups and things like that,” Harris said. “But just the online sales have, like, literally tripled when I look at my web traffic. I’m like, OK, you guys see me. This is great.”

She also does regular online video consultations with clients, taking them through how to style their hair and correctly use products, but, she said, it’s hard not seeing people in person.

“Sometimes I have to get myself mentally prepared for those Zoom calls because I still feel like I’m not doing enough,” Harris said.

As a Black salon owner, Harris has a strong, ongoing relationship with her clients. For the kind of upkeep and styling Black hair requires, she said, some of her regular clients had appointments every two weeks and were booked out until the end of the year.

“It was therapeutic for both of us,” Harris said of her clients with bi-weekly appointments. She said for those regulars who she’s able to do video consultations with, it’s often a time to catch up and talk about life.

“Sometimes they haven’t even turned into really styling sessions or tutorials, they’ve just been, ‘I miss you. How’s the kids? How are things going?’” she said.

Harris said she has applied for small business loans and has also applied for unemployment benefits, but has not received either. 

Jordyn Hilton, a Portland tattoo artist, has also tried to adapt while unable to work. She’s started doing art commissions and tattoo raffles to keep some money coming in in the meantime.

Hilton said the coronavirus pandemic has put her in a particularly tough spot financially. 

Hilton has been tattooing for about two years and just opened up her own shop, The Midnight Tattoo Collective. That was just before the governor’s stay-at-home order.

“I haven’t been able to tattoo in my new space yet because of everything,” Hilton said.

She said she’s been dipping into her savings to pay for living expenses and her new shop. She hasn’t heard back about her applications for small business loans and unemployment benefits.

“A lot of tattooers in the state are required to go to school, which costs about $10,000,” Hilton said. “So, some of us are still in debt paying that off.”

Even with that financial strain, Hilton said, she doesn’t know when she’ll feel ready to go back to work. 

“It's a push and pull, like I need money,” she said. “The government's not helping me at all, but I don't want to go back to work because I'm scared.” 

In working so closely with people, she and others in similar fields must acquire personal protective equipment like masks, gloves and gowns. While tattoo artists regularly use this type of equipment, Hilton said, when the pandemic began, a lot of tattooers donated their supplies to hospitals. Now that equipment is hard to find.

“I don’t really understand how [tattooing] is in the first phase of reopening,” Hilton said. “It just seems unsafe."

Tattoo artist Jordyn Hilton in front of her home in Portland, Oregon, on June 7, 2020.
Arya Surowidjojo/OPB
Tattoo artist Jordyn Hilton in front of her home in Portland, Oregon, on June 7, 2020.

On top of that, Hilton said she's been participating in Portland demonstrations, protesting the killing of George Floyd, a Black man who suffocated under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer — as well as other Black people affected by police brutality and killed by racist violence.

She said because she's been out in the streets, around thousands of other Portlanders protesting, she will not be opening her shop this month, even if Multnomah County is approved for Phase 1 of reopening.

"I've been protesting and have broken quarantine," Hilton said. "So, I am taking the steps to re-quarantine after this month."

Aside from safety, Hilton worries about how the experience of giving and receiving tattoos will change. 

“Tattooing is a very lovely, intimate process, and this just kind of takes away from that as well,” she said. “I love being able to get to know people on such an intimate personal level. And this just seems very sterile and, like, unpredictable and just not the environment I enjoy working in either.”

Salon owner Harris said it’s hard to think about how the community aspect of her work will feel different. 

“You know, I’ve become very much a part of a lot of my clients’ family, all the way from doing their middle school dances to their proms to getting them ready for their baby showers and weddings,” she said. “I feel blessed to be such an integral part of my clients’ lives, and they’re all freaking out right now, especially with it being uncertain when this will end.”

Lee, who's back to work at her salon in Beaverton, said everything about how she interacts with clients has changed. They have to keep talking to a minimum, and clients can’t bring in their loved ones who would usually accompany them to appointments.

Coronavirus safety precautions sign inside Ceanna Jennifer Lee's salon in Beaverton, Oregon.
Arya Surowidjojo/OPB
Coronavirus safety precautions sign inside Ceanna Jennifer Lee's salon in Beaverton, Oregon.

But, regardless of the changes, as she enters her salon for the first time in a long time, she said being back at her workstation feels good.

“Honestly, I’m kind of excited,” Lee said. “I was really nervous up until this point. This whole last week I was really hesitant to come back. Now that I’m here, I feel like I just have to bite the bullet and just start working.”

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit .

Meerah Powell is a general assignment and breaking news reporter for OPB. She previously worked as a news reporter and podcast producer for Eugene Weekly in her hometown of Eugene, Oregon. Along with writing and audio work, Meerah also has experience with photography and videography. She graduated from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication.