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Coronavirus: What happens at work when touch is part of the job?

Hairdressers, nail techs, and massage therapists can’t work online or stay six feet away from their clients.
Tina Sapia, trims Guy Netphron's hair at Sapia's Barber Shop on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 in Clearwater. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE  |  Times]
Tina Sapia, trims Guy Netphron's hair at Sapia's Barber Shop on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 in Clearwater. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

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A week ago, Kimberly Risenburg was still giving manicures and pedicures, spritzing her room at the Studio 57 Day Spa with Lysol in between each client. The 51-year-old nail tech was confident that if she got sick, she’d be fine.

But as more positive coronavirus cases were confirmed in the Tampa Bay area, Risenburg decided that the risk of working wasn’t worth it anymore. She could pass the disease her most vulnerable visitors.

“A lot of my clientele is elderly and I love them like my grandparents," Risenburg said. “Would I go over to my grandparents’ house right now? No.”

It’s a hard time for those with careers that revolve around human contact. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are urging people to practice social distancing to curb the spread of the coronavirus. But how can you give a massage, apply hair extensions or wax someone’s upper lip from 6 feet away?

On March 19, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez ordered closure of all non-essential businesses. That hasn’t happened yet in the Tampa Bay area, leaving some customers, business owners and workers to make their own decisions.

Tools are still disinfected regularly, at Sapia's Barber Shop on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 in Clearwater. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

Sue Lang, 63, decided to cut back on taking appointments at her hair salon, Colourations at Salon Vachon in Seminole. It was a preventative measure, her part in reducing the spread of COVID-19.

But she knows for many customers, going to the hair salon was one of the last places where life felt normal.

“I keep getting these text messages with sad faces, like ‘Oh my god, my hair is gonna be so grey,'" she said. “I’m like, ‘Oh my god, so is mine.’”

Like many of her friends who work at independent salons, Lang doesn’t have unemployment insurance, paid health insurance, paid vacation or sick days. She doesn’t make money unless she’s standing behind the chair.

Lang’s personal savings could last for about a month, especially since she won’t be spending money at bars or restaurants. She doesn’t have a lot of debt and her fiancé still has a job. Her grown children can fend for themselves. She considers herself lucky.

But Lang and her business partner worry about the bills that are coming. They wonder if their landlord would let them skip the rent payment this month.

“We both laughed out loud because we know that’s not going to happen,” Lang said.

It’s not just the money and the stability that she will miss. She’s an extrovert. Isolation hits extra hard without her clients.

“We share each other’s wants, dreams, desires, happiness,” she said. “I feel like a large portion of my friends that I see regularly I can’t see right now."

Tina Sapia works on Don Bain, 66, a regular who has been coming to her barber shop for over three years, at Sapia's Barber Shop on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 in Clearwater. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

Sapia’s Barber Shop in Clearwater is still scheduling haircuts, with some new precautions.

Owner Tina Sapia wants fewer than 10 people in the barbershop at once. If each of the five employees at the shop has someone in the chair, she won’t hesitate to ask walk-ins to wait in the car.

If one of the barbers travels or feels sick, the other four must vote unanimously to allow them to come back to work.

“We’ve always done the sanitation because that’s how we’ve always been, but now there’s a little extra extra extra amount of care," Sapia said. “We’re really on high alert with everything, but we’re still working.”

In Sapia’s hair salon next door to the barbeshop, customers have been buying extra gift cards. Booksy, the company Sapia uses to keep track of appointments, recently rolled out a virtual tip jar that allows clients to tip now for a future cut.

“We’re going to keep going until they tell us to stop,” Sapia said.

Barbers work on clients at Sapia's Barber Shop on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 in Clearwater. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

Nelson Cacciatore didn’t have a choice. On Monday, the licensed massage therapist and owner of EPIC Services in Tampa was forced to cancel hundreds of appointments he had lined up for the next four weeks.

“I can’t massage somebody online," Cacciatore said. “I can’t change your tissue through a web podcast.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis passed a stop working order on Friday that lasts 60 days and includes the type of massage therapy he practices. If Cacciatore violates that, he could lose his license.

He has “bills coming out the wazoo” and will not be able to pay himself in the coming weeks.

But Cacciatore is more concerned for his clients, who rely on his services to manage pain.

“I can’t imagine my clients that need this work not having hope,” he said. “Because they don’t want to go to a doctor. They don’t want surgery. They don’t want pills. They just want to be able to move.”

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

EVENT CANCELLATIONS: Get the latest updates on events planned in the Tampa Bay area in the coming weeks.

STORES REACT TO VIRUS: Some businesses adjust hours or announce temporary closings.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

STOCK UP YOUR PANTRY: Foods that should always be in your kitchen, for emergencies and everyday life.

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