Veteran hairstylist on cutting hair in the new normal

Nona Walters has been cutting hair in Grand Rapids for 42 years. Getting her start on Jefferson St. in the late 1980s, she has witnessed much change over the years, weathering economic up turns and down, all while running her own business for the better part of four decades. Walters can most recently be found cutting and styling hair on Lake Ave. behind Spirit Dreams, where she rents chair space to two other stylists.

But for the last three months, those chairs have sat empty in accordance with Governor Whitmer's executive order to close non essential businesses, including salons, spas, and barbershops. Overnight, Nona's business was put on hold, as her clients by law were required stay home, and she was forced to close her doors until further notice.

For this intimate profession that literally requires touching other people in close proximity, COVID-19 presents a unique set of challenges. Further yet, existing outside of the "essential business" designation struck a personal blow to some, especially as at-home haircut tutorials abounded online, and the Governor herself made (and later apologized for) comments that seemed to diminish the profession of trained stylists and barbers. For so many hair stylists, their business was in danger as their incomes screeched to a halt during the three months in which salons were forced to close. Nona's Eastown studio.

Now, as salons begin to reopen beginning June 15, stylists and barbers are adapting to new regulations put in place by the governor, as they welcome clients back into their chairs and beneath their careful sheers and blow-dryers.

"I'm seasoned for sure," says Walters jokingly about her years of experience. "We're all old hairdressers with strong clienteles," she adds about her fellow stylists that work alongside her in her 900 square foot space behind Spirit Dreams. When Walters was forced to close under the executive order, she made the decision to pause chair rental fees for her fellow stylists, and her landlords, in turn, discontinued rent while her business was closed.

"I have really good landlords that quite frankly forgave the rent for the time we weren't there ... a lot of people didn't have that," she says. "That in itself was just huge."

Having worked for decades in the same community, Walters was confident that her clients would return when she was ready to reopen. And as soon as the Governor announced that salons could open their doors on June 15, Walters was inundated with appointment requests. "Oh, honey, I am booked til August," she lovingly tells me over the phone. "Five minutes after she announced it, my phone blew up."

And Walters is ready. Over the past three months, she has been sprucing up her space and making changes to account for new COVID-19 precautions suggested by MI Safe Start Plan for cosmetology and barber services and required by the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA). She removed one of her styling stations to allow for more space between cuts, and has replaced that chair with a sanitation station. She will also only allow two out of the three stylists to work at any given time.

Walters' clients will also be required to wait in their cars until their appointment begins (no more waiting area) and will be directed to enter through a back entrance to wash their hands. But Walters also knows that every client is unique. An elderly client with a caretaker, for example, needs a place to sit down, and someone who struggles with anxiety may occasionally need to remove their mask.One of Walters' COVID-19 precaution signs.

"We'll all do our best," says Walters. "We've basically changed a lot, but at the same time we're ready to get back up and get back in there."

For Walters, who has passed every single sanitation inspection from the state board since she started 42 years ago, cleanliness and safety is in the DNA of her business. "My salon is frickin' tip top clean," she says. 

She even has experimented using the plastic face shields popularized by Georgia stylists upon reopening their salons, but found it a tad difficult to work. "I did buy one ... I don't know if I'll wear it," she says. "I'm not going to HAZMAT up."

As she approaches reopening, Walters calls upon her years of experience in maintaining a clean and comfortable space —  for herself, her fellow stylists, and her clients. By combining all of the suggested state precautions with additional standards for own space, Walters is ready to hit the ground running after a few months spent preparing for cutting hair during COVID-19.

"I have had no problem with the governor trying to keep us safe," says Walters. "At the end of the day, it is a business where you touch people."

Photos courtesy Nona Walters.
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