Salon owner, Moraga woman struggling amid COVID-19 shutdowns
By Lou Fancher
Hair styling is an art, a visible expression of creativity, craft, technique and special insight into the soul of each client, says cosmetologist Courtney Schmitz. The Moraga resident whose boutique salon, Luxe Hair Studio, is in Alamo’s W Salon Suites at the Alamo Plaza Shopping Center, specializes in advanced color techniques and contemporary cuts.
“Hair is the crown you never take off,” Schmitz says. “As a hair stylist, I get to make women feel empowered, happy, pampered.”
That helps explain the high frustration and anxiety she and many colleagues in the personal care industry are experiencing during the coronavirus pandemic. The lockdowns in mid-March shuttered Bay Area hair salon and nail businesses. Subsequent openings, closings and hybrid permission to resume services — indoors with tight guidelines, then outdoors with impossible parameters — during the past four months have been a rollercoaster ride, and not a joyful one.
“There was nervousness even before the shutdown,” Schmitz says. “Everyone knew this virus was out there. When we received the news we’d be locked down, we were told it would likely be for three weeks. Calls and texts started flooding in asking how I’d survive being closed. We have so much overhead in my industry, three weeks was huge.”
Learning only the night before that a lockdown would commence, salon owners were left with no time to prepare.
“You’re worried about rent, clients, your business,” she says. “Now I laugh that three weeks seemed like a lot.”
Laughing is certainly one coping mechanism, but Schmitz and other stylists have had to call upon inner reserves of gritty determination and discipline for the long haul. Many salons are small, one-owner businesses; she says even long-established companies are finding their businesses in jeopardy as the restrictions continue.
“I’m seeing salons that have been here for years shutting down. We’ll continue to see a wave of closures,” Schmitz predicts.
Crushed by continued rent and insurance payments and fees for retail, practice and business licenses — and minus client revenue — Schmitz says, “It hits hard.” Customers have ordered gift cards and home care kits, but the stopgap efforts do not balance the financial losses. At first, Schimtz’ attitude was positive.
“I told myself if we could do this shelter-in-place for long enough, we could kick this thing. I knew it was for the greater good, so I was anxious, but it was the opportunity to flatten the curve.”
Schmitz, 33, is a native of Walnut Creek and graduate of College Park High School in Pleasant Hill. After working for several years in sales and marketing for a Bay Area apparel company, she decided to switch careers and return to her earliest and most genuine passions: styling hair and connecting one-on-one with people.
Enrolling in the cosmetology program at Sassoon Academy in Danville (the school is now under different ownership) she completed 1,600 classwork hours and two final state board exams required to become a licensed, professional stylist.
“That’s just the very start,” she says. “The main focus of school is to ensure you can operate in a safe, clean manner. You’re working with chemicals and sharp objects on someone’s head, so there’s a lot of responsibility. You’re not becoming an artist in school.”
Artistry typically develops later, during internships and jobs assisting established hair stylists. After more than a year, Schmitz knew she wanted to own and operate her own studio. She selected the name Luxe for pizzazz and to reflect luxury and the salon’s custom services that include everything from French champagne served to clients — Bollinger and Billecart-Salmon are her two favorites — to balayage, a hand-painting technique that results in more natural highlighting than standard approaches.
When the lockdown first lifted, Schmitz knew she could meet the stringent requirements. With a private studio, policies that allow no double bookings with clients kept waiting while others receive services and in a building with owners who employ a full-time professional cleaning company, Schmitz added extra protections.
She invested in personal protective equipment (PPE) for herself and clients (masks, gloves, shields, hand sanitizers); hired a laundry service to ensure that towels, capes and aprons were professionally cleaned; implemented temperature checks for clients and created a health waiver/disclosure questionnaire so that “nothing fell through the cracks.” Every styling tool according to industry standards is cleaned with hospital-grade disinfectant. Schmitz even added ultraviolet-light sanitization boxes to disinfect clients’ keys, cell phones and credit cards.
“Probably the biggest thing is that I put in designated time blocks of 30 minutes before and after each client to disinfect every square inch of my suite. If I typically saw five color clients a day, now I only saw two. It’s to ensure everybody’s safety is top priority.”
With time and money invested in tight protocols, Schmitz felt she was finally back in her groove. Clients were comfortable; she was swamped with work. The second shutdown, she says was entirely different.
“It was a complete change of attitude. Why was it OK for someone to go to HomeGoods, a store where there have been hundreds of people touching stuff, but not OK to come into my private suite and receive a service? Especially with all the precautions I had taken?”
The proposal to do services outdoors was laughable to Schmitz.
“In my salon, I have full control, proper filtration systems, complete ability to have air purified constantly. Working in a dirty parking lot? That’s only if you have space, and truly, 90% of us don’t have that. It allows only cutting services. If we can’t wash our clients hair and do chemical services, it’s ludicrous.”
For now, respect for legal limitations and her clients’ safety keep Schmitz from going underground to do home visits or joining hair salons in Dublin, Pleasanton and Livermore for an upcoming one-day opening in defiance of Alameda County’s ban. Ultimately, the salons seek classification as essential businesses, a designation Schmitz would welcome.
“For now, I drop off customized color kits and I’m available for virtual consultations. But I can’t ensure quality and safety if I go to people’s homes. Believe me, I’m not going to give up without a fight. We don’t know how long this second closure will be. There are too many unknowns … so for now, it’s one day at a time.”