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‘They’re Trusting Me with Their Health’: West Hartford Salons Keep Things Safe Amid Pandemic

Lena Whalen of Looks by Lena, which operates out of a studio suite at Salons by JC in Bishops Corner, West Hartford. Courtesy photo

Hair salons, barbershops, nail salons, and other personal service businesses reopened in June, but some people have remained cautious about returning.

Colleen Rodriguez of A Strand A Head on Park Road in West Hartford. Courtesy photo

By Kristina Vakhman

At the height of the coronavirus when salons and spas closed, some turned to at-home haircuts and do-it-yourself manicures – with varying results.

But with the vaccine rollout and precautions in place, West Hartford’s shops want their clients to know that they’re doing everything to keep them safe for their return.

“My clients used to trust me with doing their hair, and now they’re trusting me with their health,” said Colleen Rodriguez of A Strand A Head on Park Road. “Some are still nervous about coming back, but we’re thankful that we can be open and have the support of the community and our clients.”

Hair salons, barbershops, spas and nail salons are still facing scrutiny. Connecticut considers hair and barbershops to be “high-contact environments,” and the state Department of Public Health mandates that they, as well as nail technicians, estheticians, cosmetologists and others, strictly follow Infection Prevention and Control Plan Guidelines.

Going to one of these locations can’t be guaranteed risk-free – a recent study also suggested that simply talking in a salon or spa can spread COVID-19, even while wearing a mask – but West Hartford’s shops are taking safety seriously.

In addition to wearing masks and gloves, ThuLan Nail Retreat on Park Road, for example, has table shields set up, and clients’ nails are even disinfected every time a product is applied so that there’s no contamination.

“I’m very confident and comfortable with what we’re trying to do and keeping up with sanitizing,” said owner ThuLan Pham, adding that the precautions aren’t just for her clients, but for her staff, too. Pham is 58 and her husband is over 60. “Keeping the store in top shape is really a priority for us here.”

ThuLan Nail Retreat has not seen around half of its regular customer base return yet and its employees are currently working part-time. Pham said it’s tough financially and mentally, but that she’ll do anything to overcome the impact of the virus. Last year, when everything was closed, she even did house calls in people’s backyards.

“I refuse to let COVID take over my business,” she said. “So I have to fight. I struggle and I hustle and I do everything I can to keep my store open.”

That’s not to say that the coronavirus hasn’t helped new opportunities present themselves. Wariness around going to traditional salons during COVID-19 has accelerated the popularity of salon suites. For stylists like Lena Whalen of Looks by Lena, that means she can offer all of her services in a personal setting.

“Not only is it safe, but people also like the privacy. They like the one-on-one attention,” said Whalen, who rents her suite at Salons by JC on North Main Street in Bishops Corner. She was working at a multi-chair salon when COVID-19 first hit, and she said she’s doing much better in the new model, as her customers feel much more comfortable coming to her space. “I’ve actually found the last several months to be quite busy here.”

Salons by JC landlord Gary Dahms said that though not all customers have returned, he also expects that the model will keep strong even after the coronavirus.

Sola Salons is preparing to open in West Hartford in March 2021. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The same goes for Brian Jersey at Sola Salon Studios, which will follow the suite model as well. Sola Salon’s West Hartford location opens in March.

“I have no doubt that we’re going to continue to grow and add locations,” Jersey said.

The pandemic has also led to a boom for those with clients who were ready to come back. Antoinisha Merrick just moved her spa, Strawberry Artistry LLC, out of West Hartford to a bigger location. She said that, in a way, the coronavirus helped her business: her customers were very eager to return for her services and applauded her for how she’s following guidelines.

Interior of Strawberry Artistry. Courtesy photo

“I’ve been fully booked ever since [last June],” Merrick said. “Every month, I’m booked a month out.”

Merrick’s new space has ample room for social distancing, she said, and she’s taking extra precautions like doing temperature checks at the door and asking patrons to fill out a COVID form before arrival.

“My clients feel safe,” Merrick said. Strawberry Artistry earned a “COVID-19 Ready” badge based on favorable customer reviews on Vagaro, a beauty and fitness app for businesses in the industry. “Every client that has come in said that everything has been clean and sanitary.”

Interior of The Medspa in West Hartford’s Blue Back Square. Courtesy photo

The Medspa on Raymond Road in Blue Back Square follows safety protocols with the added bonus of having a personal medical perspective, as it is a medical spa. Chief Operating Officer Roni Rodman said business has been great and that the spa is even expanding.

“We’re doing incredible to the point that we have to hire new people,” Rodman explained.

Rodman said that the spa has always adhered to safety guidelines, and that now it’s following them more than strictly.

“It’s been a change, but our staff is great and our clientele is very patient,” Rodman said. “Self-care is very important.”

That’s the case for most salons and spas, which have taken the extra steps to sanitize and disinfectant more than ever before. And it feels good to have these efforts appreciated.

Back at A Strand A Head, Rodriguez said that every time a client recognizes how much has gone into making the salon safe, it makes her day, especially after the unforgettable stress of having been shut down.

“Any new referrals we’ve gotten since COVID have been because of our protocols,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve had one elderly client say she feels more comfortable coming to get her hair done than going to the doctor.”

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