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Progress: Metro hears how close-contact businesses are evolving as they start to open up after lockdown

Hair today: Hairdressers can reopen, but there are strict guidelines in place

IF YOU’RE hunched over a computer monitor all day, or serving the public in a shop or bar, it is likely you’ll be able to keep your distance from others in accordance with coronavirus guidelines. But what happens if your business is one of those where it’s impossible not to get within a metre of your clients?

Some of these ‘close up’ businesses — including dental practices and hairdressers — are already able to reopen. But others, such as spas and nail bars, must remain closed for the time being.

For those that have already been given the green light, many changes have had to be made to ensure that work can continue safely. For those that aren’t open, communication with customers and continued planning is vital.

‘The restrictions placed on close-contact businesses such as hairdressers and spas by the government are, of course, fair: they are designed to keep the business and the customer safe,’ says Michelle Ovens, head of Small Business Britain. ‘Small businesses are hugely invested in the care of both their staff and their customers, so of course they want to do everything they can to reassure and protect.

‘Small businesses can take their stakeholders on the journey with them — through the cleaning process, the face coverings and the changes in procedure — which will ensure customer engagement and staff loyalty through this difficult time.’

Who can open and how?

At the time of writing, hairdressers, dentists and opticians are able to reopen in England, but spas, nail bars, tattoo artists and masseuses cannot. Different rules apply in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

Although not all close-contact occupations are allowed to operate, the government has issued specific guidance for close-contact businesses, acknowledging that ‘maintaining social distancing will not usually be possible when actively serving a client’.

Instead, the guidance — which is available on the gov.uk website — calls for ‘mitigating actions’ to reduce the risk of contagion, including not spending more than 15 minutes in contact with a client.

Staff members are asked to work back-to-back or side-to-side, and waiting areas should only be opened if social distancing can be maintained. Items such as gowns, towels and nail files should be disposable where possible and staff should change into their uniforms on the premises if possible and wash them on a daily basis. The guidance also recommends that staff wear visors covering the forehead, extending below the chin, and wrapping around the side of the face, when dealing with clients.

Hilary Hall, chief executive of the National Hairdressing & Barbers Federation, says that although the guidance is welcome, these decisions have come ‘very late in the day’.

‘We are also extremely disappointed that beauty businesses are not yet allowed to reopen, and we have always emphasised that hair and beauty should reopen at the same time,’ she adds.

Getting ready

Like all other businesses with more than five employees, close-contact businesses must do a risk assessment to ensure that they are ready to open, and this may need to be even more thorough than for other types of businesses given the nature of the work.

Staff must be kept safe as well as customers, with the government recommending staggered shift patterns and limited role and task rotation so that opportunities to pass on the virus are limited. The government also requires you to keep a list of your staff’s shift patterns for 21 days in case Test & Trace agents contact you.

Bhavin Shah, founder of Central Vision Opticians in Finchley, London, says that walking through the entire customer journey — from booking an appointment to walking out of the store — helps to identify pinch points and areas for improvement when preparing to reopen.

Like many opticians, he has been able to stay open for emergencies throughout lockdown, which has helped him work out how best to operate.

He says that the new working practices are ‘a bit surreal’ but that by discussing ideas with other optometrists, he has managed to make reopening less stressful, yet safe. ‘Initially, I think we went over the top with PPE,’ he says. ‘I was wearing a gown and apron and scrubs and a visor and I don’t think I needed everything.’

Making everyone comfortable

Whether you’re a dentist or a hairdresser, it’s important to keep the customer as comfortable as possible without compromising safety. Companies have had to think creatively about how to do this while meeting the guidelines.

Bhavin is sending customers a video ahead of their appointment, explaining what changes they can expect, to put people at ease.

Kirsten Maine, co-founder and salon director at Live True London, is ensuring customers have something to read when they get their haircut, despite restrictions on print magazines and newspapers.

‘While we won’t be able to provide physical magazines for clients, we now have e-magazines available in all of our salons, which can be accessed through a client’s phone or tablet,’ Kirsten says.

‘And of course these also have the benefit of being environmentally friendly, which we love.’

Jason Goldberg, CEO of spa booking experts SpaSeekers, suggests that spas with innovative treatments — particularly those that don’t involve people being handled or in close contact — are seeing increased booking, as people seek reassurance over infection control. He says: ‘We are seeing new treatment trends; people are moving towards low-touch treatments such as aromatherapy, deep soaks, yoga and reiki.’

Crunching the numbers

For many close-contact businesses, reopening will be expensive. As well as investment in the social distancing measures required by all reopening businesses, they will require large amounts of PPE.

Mick Armstrong, chair of UK trade body the British Dental Association (BDA) says that these costs have left dentists struggling.

‘Current guidelines mean practices are operating at less than a quarter of their former capacity, with PPE bills that have shot up 6,000 per cent. Without help from government, a service millions depend on now faces a deeply uncertain future.’

Some dental practices are charging extra for PPE costs with top-up fees of up to £45 in some cases (see case study, above).

Kirsten at Live True London says that reopening costs for her hairdressing business exceed £35,000, and that PPE will be available for clients as well as staff.

Given rising costs and limitations on the number of customers you can serve, ensuring your business remains viable before opening is allowed may mean keeping up ‘pivoted’ businesses on the side, as well as continuing to use the government’s furlough scheme part-time if staff cannot be safely brought back or if space does not allow everyone to function.

Michelle at Small Business Britain says that close-contact businesses that can’t yet reopen can serve customers at home with ‘remote care services — such as online teeth or nail care and self care packages — as well as online sales of relevant products’.

‘This can help to maintain relationships as well as generate much needed cash in the short-term,’ she says. ‘Businesses can even look at booking and charging in advance for services, post-lockdown.

‘Keeping these new business models in place will also be key to managing recovery in the second half of 2020.’

OUR EXPERTS

Michelle Ovens MBE, founder of Small Business Britain

Bhavin Shah, founder of Central Vision Opticians in Finchley, London

Hilary Hall, chief executive of the National Hairdressing & Barbers Federation

Kirsten Maine, co-founder of Live True London, which has four hair and beauty salons

Jason Goldberg, CEO of spa booking experts SpaSeekers

Mick Armstrong, chair of UK trade body the British Dental Association

‘I can’t see many people needing a make-up artist soon’

COVID-19 guidelines have dealt make-up artist Penny Williams a double blow. Not only are there restrictions on her getting close to her customers, but the weddings that are core to her business, Blush Beauty, have been on hold until recently, too.

Despite the announcement that wedding ceremonies can go ahead in a modified form, Penny (pictured above, right) says she doesn’t expect to be wielding the blusher any time soon.

‘A lot of the wedding is about the party, and if weddings go ahead they won’t involve a make-up artist.’

Penny also does facials from a studio at her house and she believes she’ll be able to operate safely when she reopens, seeing a limited number of clients each day.

Until then, she is surviving on the government’s self-employment grant and income from her paintings, which she is selling as a ‘pivoted business’ while she cannot work. ‘It’s been a lifesaver,’ she says.

‘We’ve spent £15,000 on Covid safety measures’

HARLEY Street dentist Dr Patrick Tarrant opened his doors to customers a few weeks ago, having changed his working practices completely to ensure that everyone is kept safe.

Dentistry is a particularly difficult ‘close-contact business’, as procedures such as drilling create aerosolised particles, that could potentially contain the virus.

And Patrick (below) says he has spent £15,000 so far on PPE and other safety measures, including air purification, a specialist suction pump to remove aerosols at source and a UV sterilising light machine that is thought to be the first in the country.

‘The light sterilises surfaces, and the machine is the same as the ones used by Sheraton Hotels and on the production lines at Volkswagen,’ he says.

Patrick and his dental nurse also screen patients’ temperatures and their oxygen saturation levels before allowing them into the dental surgery.

But safety measures this advanced do come at a cost. ‘Each patient has to pay a £45 surcharge for PPE,’ he says. ‘It is the only way we could do this.’

Patrick admits that waiting to reopen his dental practice had been “frustrating” as he could only do consultations via Zoom and prescribe antibiotics.

‘We’re dealing with people in pain now,’ he says. “It was very hard to do that remotely.’

‘Masks won’t stop the friendly vibe’

AYANDA SOARES, founder of House Of Hair, had to close the doors to her salon just three months after it was opened by the Mayor of Hammersmith & Fulham. With its luxury nail bar, ‘prosecco wall’ and velvet crush interior, it had become a popular destination.

Ayanda (above) took to YouTube, offering hair masterclasses to an audience of more than 18,000. She says that while she is excited to reopen her salon this week, she’s saddened by the changes she has had to make. ‘To banish the small things like hugging our staff, or customers hanging around our prosecco wall, is a little disheartening,’ she says. ‘We’re such a close-knit family, the social distancing in the salon will be hard for us all.’

House Of Hair has a waiting list of more than 100 women, and they will find new health ground rules in place. All styling chairs will have a disposable chair cover, the salon will have no waiting area, and ‘plus ones’ and children will not be allowed. Blow-drying will only be offered for those having treatments where it is a necessary part.

‘When doing clients’ hair, all staff will be masked up but that won’t stop the friendly vibe between hairstylist and client,’ Ayanda says. ‘The new atmosphere will still have the home-to-home feel but just at a distance.’