The View of Our Downtown Barbers

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Gary Caldwell for ELi

When Governor Gretchen Whitmer relaxed business restrictions on June 15th, three barbershops in downtown East Lansing — Sparties Barbershop, Campus Barbers, and Grand River Barbers — reopened officially to customers. And following the Department of Licensing and Regulation (LARA) COVID-19 guidelines released in early June, each barbershop is acclimating to a new way of providing service for their clients.

By prioritizing online bookings and call-in appointments over walk-ins, these businesses hope to quell possible congestion within their shops.

Sparties Barbershop has moved its waiting area outside, Campus Barbers seats only four waiting clients at a time, and Grand River Barbers has completely closed its alley entrance, among its other methods for promoting public health. 

As manager Nick Salinas of Grand River Barbers noted in an interview with ELi, “Handling COVID, a lot of the guidelines that they had set for reopening is stuff that is already in the health code for barbershops. The chairs are already meant to be 6 feet apart. We already clean and sanitize our tools regularly.”

So, if barbers are already used to being somewhat socially distanced, what exactly is changing in practice? How are customers kept extra safe? 

Ahmaad Sutton, a Sparties Barbershop employee, said the staff of five at Sparties is thinking all the time about how to put customers first.

“We’re taking the precautions to make sure that we’re wearing masks and wiping down the chairs and doors every couple of hours to ensure we’re keeping the environment safe for ourselves and our customers.”

“I lost some family due to COVID-19,” continued Sutton. “It’s definitely been an eye-opener to take every precaution possible to make sure myself and my family is safe while I go out and make a living.” 

“We want to keep clean,” said Salinas of Grand River Barbers. “It helps keep our tools working properly . . . keeping them clean and keeping the work area clean so you’re not tripping over hair.”

He explains, “We’ve just kind of amped it up with the requests to keep compliant with COVID guidelines.”

Alex Flit, co-owner of Campus Barbers, distinguished his shop by describing it as a sort-of Mom & Pop environment.

“It’s the third oldest business in East Lansing and it is the oldest one on Grand River [Avenue].”

While Flit expressed minor irritation with overly-precautious customers, he also lamented the passion of anti-maskers. 

“[There’s] a lot of people who might call in and say, ‘I’m not gonna wear a mask, I’ll tell you that!’ and I just say, ‘I suggest you refer to our website.’ I don’t have anything else to say.”

Now that Governor Whitmer has ordered businesses to refuse customers not wearing masks, that issue might present less of a problem.

According to Crain’s Detroit Business, Whitmer’s order allows “for removing a mask inside public spaces, such as receiving a service such as [a] haircut or dental procedure where it’s ‘necessary to perform the service,’ verifying identification or communication with someone who is hearing impaired.”

Flit wants people to understand that he and his small crew are trying to do their best in keeping their casual shop safe for any type of customer: “I hope that everybody can respect that we’re trying to take care of things and keep it safe.”

“Out of the past three weeks, I’ve had one, maybe two people that were very specifically adamant about keeping their mask on,” said Salinas. “We obviously obliged them. I’ve cut people’s masks accidentally . . . but we have hundreds of masks we can give them to people if they need them.”

About the influx in population East Lansing expects come mid-August, the three barbers interviewed for this story had different reactions.

For Flit and the barbers at Campus Barbers, they are ready to get back to it, feeling confident about the precautions they have taken. 

When asked if the Harper’s outbreak made him nervous for the return of students, Salinas said, “If people are worried, then they should definitely stay home and take advantage of grocery delivery services and stuff like that. If you’re not, you’re an adult and you can take that risk. . . .  We want to make it comfortable for everybody. We recommend that if you’re not comfortable, then maybe just don’t come in. That’s completely fine, too.”

Sutton of Sparties Barbershop said, “Instead of being pessimistic, I’m just really cautious about people coming back. Making sure the shop and I have the right disinfectants to . . . make sure we’re keeping up with our clients. I don’t want anyone to be able to say ‘We got COVID. We were at Sparties. They don’t clean or anything.’ So I want to make sure that the shop as a whole is helping to cut down on that spread with the influx of people coming in the fall.”

He summed up his view this way: “It’s better to have trouble breathing [with a mask] than not be breathing at all.”

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