Vietnamese American-owned salons struggling to survive amidst COVID-19

Nail and hair salons have been a cornerstone of the Vietnamese American business community, dotting streets and corners of Little Saigons across the nation and at home in Seattle. There are about 2,180 Vietnamese-owned nail and hair salons across the state, making up around 60% of salon ownership, now facing disproportionate health risks and uncertain futures.
July 16, 2020 | 15:46
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For many new immigrants from Vietnam, working in a nail salon is a first step in establishing a sense of financial stability and connecting with ethnic enclaves. However, with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, salon workers are facing disproportionate health risks and uncertain futures. On the heels of reopenings, workers are having to contend with a rush of new clients, exposing them to an illness that many cannot afford to stay home and grapple with.

But before the pandemic, finding customers or revenue weren’t struggles for these salons. “There were a lot of customers and business was going well before the virus. I didn’t find any trouble getting manicure clients and had a lot of regulars,” said Nancy, who has been working in a nail salon for 8 years. A hair salon owner who immigrated from Vietnam in 1993 said of their experience, “It was a long struggle and I had to jump around working with a lot of salons, but I finally managed to get my own salon and it’s been running for 15 years. It wasn’t easy navigating all the contracts and legal documents by myself.” Another salon owner, Co Trang, had plans to expand, “I had actually expanded to California this year after owning a couple in Washington for over 10 years. It was really exciting but the pandemic threw a wrench in everything.” It’s no wonder that the imminent closure of salons represented a major disruption.

Although Governor Jay Inslee’s closure of restaurants, entertainment facilities, and salons landed on March 16, many Vietnamese-owned salons had been keeping up with outbreak updates through social media outlets since late 2019. As the virus claimed an accelerating number of resources and lives in the U.S., many grew less optimistic of the public health response. “I was pessimistic about what could happen next for this virus, but tried to remain focused on the task at hand and pay the bills waiting at home. I couldn’t afford not to show up to work” an anonymous nail salon worker stated. Their salon and many others like it started implementing their own safety regulations ahead of official mandates, including requiring masks, sanitizing seats and switching to appointment-only visits.

To clean and prepare and rearrange all of this is a lot of extra work, where we don’t have the income to be compensated for. But at the end of the day it’s for the safety of the customers, coworkers, and for myself,” said an anonymous nail salon worker.

The impact of COVID-19 has unearthed major fragilities in small business support systems and may be far from over. Washington State has so far done an admirable job of flattening the curve but officials have constantly warned about complacency. Their warnings have come into light as King County has experienced some of the highest daily rises of COVID cases throughout June. This reopening poses greater risks for service workers, and has many reaching a bleak conclusion about the future of their industry. “I actually think larger, more established salons will struggle, as their costs are higher,” said Co Trang. “Small businesses will maybe survive, but for those that are too small, the eventual lack of customers will get to them.”

“This job pays the bills for the time being. But I can’t see myself in this line of work forever. The economy will be in shambles with another wave of the virus and a lot more people will be out of work,” said Nancy. She plans to pursue a medical assistant degree and take advantage of the growing demand for healthcare workers. “I want to be able to provide a long-term future for my family, and I have to start that process now. I know many coworkers who are older and don’t have the resources to do a career change like this.” The phrase “uncertain times” has been locked into our vocabulary and for many of these salon workers, it exemplifies their situation with the looming threat of a second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks predicted by the CDC, reported the southseattleemerald.

Huy Nguyen, an owner of Top Nails 2, prompted by a Facebook request from a local Vietnamese pharmacist, dozens of other Vietnamese salon owners in Mobile came together and contributed more than 134,000 gloves and 23,000 masks to a nearby hospital. Nguyen, later called friends who own salons in other cities and encouraged them to do the same.

“Fighting this virus is a responsibility for every one of us,” he told NBC Asian America. “We don't work in the medical field, so we cannot fight the virus directly but we want to share our responsibility and share what we have with the community.”

vietnamese owned salons fight to stay afloat amidst covid 19
Zen Nails in Brentwood, Tenn., has converted its space into a small factory producing protective masks and gowns for local hospitals.

As health care professionals report shortages of personal protective equipment, Vietnamese-owned nail salons across the country, which dominate the multibillion-dollar nail industry in the U.S., are donating protective masks and gloves — requisite sanitation items in every salon — to hospitals in their communities.

They’re not only donating supplies, but also converting their nail salon into a small factory producing face masks and gowns. Instead of polish, sewing machines now sit on top of each nail station, and every day employees volunteer for up to nine hours making personal protective equipment for local health care providers.

In the first week, they produced more than 3,000 disposable and reusable face masks and gowns, which have been donated to three local hospitals: St. Thomas Medical Partners, Williamson Medical Center and HCA Healthcare, said the nbcnews.

Certain materials, such as polypropylene and plastic bands, are becoming harder and harder to find, Nguyen said, but she hopes to continue producing masks and gowns.

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