Dividers separate barber chairs at Carlos Barbershop, social distancing must be maintained at all times, and stylists and clients must wear face masks. Photo: Yvette d’Entremont

Today, many businesses that have been shuttered since March re-opened their doors. But it was far from business as usual. The Halifax Examiner spoke with several owners about what the new normal looks like.

It wasn’t yet 10am on Friday and eight people had already tried to get into Carlos Barbershop without an appointment. Less than an hour after opening its doors, some clients were hoping to just walk in and get a haircut, much as they would have in the days before COVID.

But this is a different time and everyone is playing by different — and much stricter — rules to adhere to public health and safety guidelines. Clients must now book ahead of time, and today’s slots had long since been taken.

“For the first couple of days, we’ll have people outside directing traffic because we’ve never been so booked. Even around Christmas time has never been this busy,” said Eve Arsenault, owner of Carlos Barbershop and Shades Hair Studio and Nail Salon in Bedford. 

“Am I afraid to open the business and then see this COVID-19 get out of hand again? Absolutely. I am afraid for our staff, for our clients, for our families. But only time will tell, and all we can do is make sure we follow all of the rules and I think we’ll be safe.”

Since the province’s May 27 announcement that parts of the economy could reopen if ready by June 5, the phones at Arsenault’s salon and barber shop have been ringing off the hook. 

It seems that many Nova Scotians need a mop chop. Arsenault said some of her stylists are working overtime hours and extra days, including Sundays, for the next little while just to keep up with the demand.

“We have Facebook messages to answer, website messages to answer, and the telephone,” she said. “We have a minimum of 40 messages on our phone a day and it will only hold 25, so we need to keep clearing them.”

Arsenault said the Cosmetology Association of Nova Scotia is one of the strictest industry bodies in the country. That’s why she’s confident the stringent protocols for operators across the province makes them as safe as possible. 

Clients are asked upon booking about any symptoms, and again when their appointment is confirmed. They’re asked a third time when they show up, and must cancel if they’re feeling unwell or exhibiting any of COVID-19 symptoms. Receptionists are behind plexiglass but still wear masks.

Stylists and clients must wear masks at all times. When clients arrive, they stand outside the shop behind distance markers on the floor. Once their stylist is ready, clients are permitted to walk in after using hand sanitizer affixed to the wall just inside the front door. 

Although there are spaces between the chairs to maintain social distancing, Arsenault constructed and set up dividers on wheels between all barbers’ and stylists’ chairs. Those are disinfected between clients.

“We don’t need dividers as long as we’re six feet apart, but I feel that the staff and the clients would feel much safer if we do have those,” she said. “It’s difficult to work with the dividers because it doesn’t give you much room, and of course you’re walking around the chairs and so that’s a learning curve for everyone too, trying to deal with that.”

To ensure social distancing, her full complement of stylists will never be working at the same time. Stylists and barbers must now take 15 minutes in between clients to ensure proper disinfection of their stations. 

She believes the biggest short term challenges for her employees include not making as much money due to all the extra cleaning time required between clients, and getting used to working all day while wearing masks.

Arsenault estimates that she’s spent a minimum of $8,000 getting everything ready to welcome clients and ensure the safety of them and her staff. 

“We don’t like the new normal because we’re Maritimers, but we’ll get used to it and things will ease up eventually,” she said. 

No willy-nilly milling about please

Inside Finbar’s Bedford, 50% of the restaurant’s seating has been removed to ensure tables are the required six feet apart to maintain social distancing. Photo: Yvette d’Entremont

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It’s lunch time on Friday at Finbar’s Irish Pub in Bedford, and for the first time since March the restaurant is open for sit-down service. 

A sign in front of the door greets patrons with a WELCOME BACK sign that asks them to wait in front of the door. 

“We’ll be out to see you in just a minute. Unless…You have travelled outside of Nova Scotia fewer than 14 days ago, you have been directed to stay home by a public health authority, you are displaying any symptoms related to COVID-19…IN WHICH CASE GO HOME.”

As one person waits to be ushered inside, a happy customer bounces out the door after his meal, a big smile on his face. He nods. 

“It’s great to have things feeling a bit more normal again. This is a good day. Let’s hope it continues, as long as people play by the rules,” he said, wagging his finger. 

Inside, another notice advises customers there’s to be “no willy-nilly milling about.” All the wait staff are wearing masks, and 50% of the restaurant’s tables have been removed to ensure all tables are spaced the required minimum of six feet apart. 

Minus the spacing between tables, the clink of cutlery and quiet murmur of voices make it almost seem like a pre-pandemic lunch hour.

One masked employee tells me that on a normal Friday, the lunch rush from the nearby office buildings would’ve had the place bustling. But they quickly add they’re just thrilled to be back to work.

Michael and Pamela Casey, owners of Finbar’s Irish Pub in Bedford and Dartmouth. Photo: Yvette d’Entremont

Michael Casey, co-owner of Finbar’s in Bedford and Dartmouth, was also glad to be re-opening. He and his wife Pamela Casey had a curbside pick-up service for customers during the pandemic. He said while it’s not a viable business model without the federal government assistance and breaks in rent, it was worth doing “to prevent sliding further backward.”   

“It’s different but it’s not as weird as I thought it was going to be. We removed half the tables, but with the patio set up and our dining room relaid out, it still looks like a restaurant in here,” he said.

Although all his staff are wearing masks, half the tables are gone, and customers must wait to be seated, Casey said the experience hasn’t changed much since the shut down. 

“You can’t just come in and mill about, but honestly it’s not shockingly different…We are being careful about spacing and managing traffic when people arrive,” he explained. 

“We expect to have a waitlist most of the time, but we’re going to have a remote wait list, tell people to go for a walk or whatever and then we’ll text them when we’re ready.”

Casey said while cleanliness was always a priority, the pub did have to change its cleaning supplies and is now using a chemical he described as a “COVID-19 killer.” 

“There’s the significant sanitation component that has to happen, but I’m really, really happy with how normal it feels in here right now,” he said.

Asked about his biggest challenge, Casey pauses before saying it’s the uncertainty.

“I definitely have pivot fatigue here. We just don’t know what’s going to change next and we don’t when that’s going to happen ever. And nobody does,” he said. 

“It’s not anybody’s fault, but it’s a bit exhausting to feel like you’re responding to things and as soon as you’ve got that one checked off, there’s another new and exciting challenge.”

Super pumped to get back to the gym

Manimal Athletics gym in Sackville. Photo: Yvette d’Entremont

Ryan Staples jokes that he and his clients were “super pumped” to be able to start training sessions at his gym again Friday. 

Staples runs Manimal Athletics Training Centre, a private personal training studio in Middle Sackville. Throughout the pandemic shutdown he was able to continue with many clients online. But he said nothing beats working with his clients in person.

“I’m starting off focusing purely on personal training. So it’s one on one. I have a newborn baby at home so I want to be as safe as possible,” he said.

“When you come in my door now you have to wash your hands immediately. You’re going to have to maintain social distancing even from myself, and I have to cap classes in a fashion that allows people to come in.”

Ryan Staples with his five-week old daughter, another reason he wants to ensure his gym is safe from COVID-19. Photo: Yvette d’Entremont

Staples said when he does start group classes in the next few days, he’ll ask clients to wait outside, spaced apart, and he’ll text them one at a time to enter. They’ll be sent directly to their marked off workout station. 

“You bring your gym gear, have it on, go right where I tell you, and nobody is going to cross paths and then you leave the same way,” he said. “I’ve always wiped down all the equipment after people use it, I’ve always kept my gym clean, and it is 100% controlled by me. You don’t walk into my doors unless I let you, and I’ll be the one opening and closing the doors.”

Staples said all gyms across the province will be operating on a ‘by appointment only’ basis. He’s not requiring clients to wear masks because he has the space to distance people, and he jokes that no one wants to do a workout with him while wearing a mask. 

“I like to have natural air and have clients who aren’t fans of air conditioning so I open my windows and the doors and let it flow freely. I won’t be able to use fans so my clients will have to suffer with a bit more warmth,” he explained.

“That’s also why I don’t want masks on. I’m an intense gym, but I have to scale down the intensity because if people are breathing super heavy, then it’s flying past their six foot parameter so we all have to change up our training a little bit.” 

Some of the smaller tweaks he’s had to make include switching from a towel he’d change regularly in the washroom to paper towel, and taking more time between clients to clean, disinfect and dry his gym and equipment. 

Staples had six clients on Friday. Although there was one who came in early and had to be corralled into a corner until the other client was finished, everything went smoothly.

“Overall it was a pretty great day and I felt great doing it again and they felt great being back,” Staples said, adding he wanted to give all Nova Scotians a small piece of advice.

“We’ve all been cooped up and moving your body is good for your mind. Go hike, go bike, go walk, go run, go fish, go golf, go play basketball, go play any sport,” he said. “Just find something new to do this summer that’s active and learn it and your life will change for the better.”

People need to be understanding

Julie Taylor owns Skin Decision. The piercing specialist has been operating a shop in Truro since 2006 and added a Halifax location in 2017. 

Her Truro shop also offers tattooing, and while the piercing part of her business won’t be up and running again until June 16, tattoo artist Dave Ramage was back to work Friday morning.

“We had 42 phone calls today. I think people are ready to celebrate and get their body art on again,” Taylor said, laughing. “I’m very happy. It feels better to be back than I even knew it would.”

Ramage had two clients today, and Taylor said they both abided by the rules. 

Because they don’t have their own formal organization, about 70 body artists from across the province formed an ad hoc committee and created a document titled ‘Nova Scotia Body Artist Guide to Return to Work during COVID-19 Pandemic.’ 

Their submission was approved by the province, and outlines the guidelines for body artists to operate in light of the new COVID-19 reality. Taylor said Nova Scotia body artists already use PPE like non-medical masks, aprons and sleeves for certain procedures. But additional PPE use will include staff wearing cloth or disposable non-medical masks in common areas, as well as a new mask for each procedure.

Clients are screened for COVID-19 and must wear a non-medical mask that can only be removed when they leave the premises. No walk-ins are permitted, and clients aren’t allowed to bring a support person with them unless they’re a minor. Clients also must keep their belongings with them in a single, closed bag.

“I think one of the big differences is that everyone is now going to be wearing a mask because we can’t be socially distanced from our clients,” Taylor said. “They wear a mask now and we wear a mask.”

All studios are now operating by appointment only, and in most cases doors will be locked. 

“A lot of the things were already part of our infection control plans as far as disinfecting everything really thoroughly between clients,” she said. “We have to treat every client as if they might have a potential pathogen, so that part is going to be the same.”

The disruption in the supply chain due to high demand for items like gloves, masks and disinfectants means that while she’s getting the same supplies, she has to wait longer for them to arrive. 

One of the biggest challenges for Taylor is artists won’t be able to have the same number of clients in the studios. They did have to offer first appointments to clients who were already booked when the shops were ordered to close. 

Despite the demand now that they’re back up and running, she said people seem to be taking it in stride and are being patient.

“I think that people will be understanding. Getting a tattoo or piercing has always been a little bit of a novel experience,” Taylor said. ‘I feel like we might get away with some of the changes easier than some of the other places. I have good faith in our clientele.”

She said while today worked like clockwork, only time will tell how things will roll out.

“I just think it’s really important for everyone to be very kind in all of this. All of us are navigating uncharted waters and I think If you see something that you don’t think is right then just mention it to that person or send them a message on it,” she said. 

“If we’re calling each other out on Facebook, that’s not really helping anybody, and we’re all here trying to do our best.”

During Friday’s COVID-19 media briefing, Dr. Robert Strang addressed the reopening and noted that people were starting to access services again.

“I know some people are excited, some are anxious, many people are feeling a bit of both. That’s natural and having these mixed feelings is probably the best and healthiest way to approach today and the days and weeks ahead,” Strang said.

“It’s really good to see that people are able to get back to work, to become more social, have a bit more normalcy back in our lives. But we also need to remain cautious. That’s why we’re taking this slowly and we have active monitoring and surveillance in place to very closely track the impact of our reopening on COVID-19.”

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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