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Boston Hairstylist Works 13 Hours A Day To Meet Demand Despite Coronavirus Fears

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

After weeks cooped up at home, a lot of shaggy people are desperate for haircuts. So the fact that salons are reopening in a lot of states is welcome news. But this is a job where you cannot social distance, and that has got a lot of hairstylists nervous - stylists like the one in Boston who just cut NPR reporter Chris Arnold's hair.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: When you're a man of a certain age, not getting a haircut for a few months - the thinning hair on top starts whisping (ph) around, the sides stick out all crazy - it is not a good look. And it seemed kind of beyond the help of, like, a YouTube haircut video. So when the guy who cuts my hair - his name is Vincent Cox. When he told me that the salon he works at was opening up, I thought, well, I mean, I don't know. What? Am I going to risk my health just for vanity?

VINCENT COX: All right. So now we have to come to a different section of the haircut.

ARNOLD: OK.

Yeah. I couldn't take it. I broke down, and I booked an appointment. Vincent is having me hold my mask in place but move the ear loop so he can cut behind my ear.

COX: Put your left hand over your face.

ARNOLD: OK.

The salon actually has an outdoor back patio, so Vincent's cutting my hair out there 'cause it seems safer. We're both wearing masks.

COX: I set up these stations outside. I brought the mirrors in from home.

ARNOLD: Vince has been cutting hair for 45 years, and he's had to improvise before. He's cut rock stars' hair on airplanes.

COX: Oh, yeah. I traveled with Aerosmith, The Cars, The Rolling Stones. That was dangerous duty, too, you know, in the '70s.

(LAUGHTER)

ARNOLD: That's a different kind of dangerous.

COX: A different kind of danger (laughter). And you could die back then, too, from it. But it wasn't - you know, it wasn't like this.

ARNOLD: Vincent says, actually, he and all the other hairstylists he knows were shocked to hear that hair salons were among the first businesses opening up in Massachusetts and some other states because he says it just doesn't seem to make a lot of sense.

COX: I mean, I would go work in an office. The other guy's six feet away at a desk. I'm not touching him and running my fingers through his hair. So...

ARNOLD: Yeah. Like, you're cutting my hair right now, and your fingers kind of bump my eyelid. It's like it's impossible not to...

COX: Exactly.

ARNOLD: ...Have contact.

COX: So it's - this is not a joke.

ARNOLD: And as we talk, it becomes clear that it's really not a joke. Vincent is pretty scared. He's 65 years old, and 80% of COVID-19 deaths have been in people his age or older.

COX: I cut my dentist's hair. He was, like, just warning me and telling me, Vince, don't take off your N95s. You know, my doctor - they're worried sick about me.

ARNOLD: But when the salon opened up, he couldn't collect unemployment anymore, so he felt he had no choice but to come back to work. He's sterilizing his chair and scissors, washing clients' hair himself, working 12-hour days, worried about getting sick.

COX: It's been one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life. I was almost in tears the first day - almost in tears. I was kind of having a little bit of a breakdown. And I talked to my friend, and he's a retired Army general. He texted me and asked me how I was doing, and I went on a rant of about 10, 15 minutes. And it was really good because in general, when he gives you a kind of a word of advice, you kind of listen, you know? And he says, Vince, just remember your friends are behind you. And so that's the best advice I've gotten.

ARNOLD: The salon owner says he's comfortable with the steps to keep employees and customers safe - spreading out the chairs inside, cutting hair on the patio, the masks, the gloves. But Vincent and stylists at other salons, too, are worried. They say they feel like canaries in a coal mine, like test subjects to see whether parts of the economy where you can't social distance are opening up too fast.

Chris Arnold, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.