As pandemic restrictions loosen in Toronto and neighbouring Peel Region, businesses across the personal care services industry say they’re being left behind.
Several professionals and proprietors who spoke to the Star on Sunday complained they’re being treated unfairly as they continue to be barred from opening under the “grey” lockdown category.
Outcry from the sector, which includes salons, barbershops and other cosmetic services, comes on the heels of the province announcing Friday that it was lifting the strict stay-at-home orders in those jurisdictions.
Michele Bonnick, the owner of Amani Hair Studio in Toronto, said anticipation built as dozens of people were on a waiting list, expecting to get the green light to book hair appointments this month. Bonnick instead had to tell them she was remaining closed indefinitely.
She slammed the provincial rule book for what she sees as favouritism towards big-box stores and other retailers, while struggling entrepreneurs are left to bear the brunt of the restrictions.
“It’s just garbage,” she said. “The standards that they’ve set for us are so high.”
Her salon has been closed for more than three months, since the November lockdown.
“The problem is the ongoing shutting down and opening up, shutting down and opening up,” she said. “It’s so inconsistent.”
Bonnick dipped into her savings to stay afloat during last spring’s lockdown. She’s now relying on government loans to stave off closure, but says it’s not sustainable. Bonnick pivoted last year to offer online services like consultations and product sales.
“I’ve been feeling like trying to find something outside of my field in order to survive,” she said.
Toronto and Peel, along with North Bay—Parry Sound, were the last ones still under the stay-at-home order imposed in December amid surging cases of COVID-19. Most of the province transitioned back to the government’s colour-coded pandemic response framework last month.
Toronto and Peel will be placed in the strictest “grey lockdown” category of the framework starting Monday, as was recommended by public health officials in the two areas.
That will allow more retailers to open, with restrictions, but leaves gyms, personal care services and indoor dining closed. Social gatherings remain banned indoors, and are capped at 10 people outdoors.
The province said Friday it opted to place Toronto and Peel in the lockdown category because the two regions are making progress but their case rates remain high.
Anosha Swalah, the creative director of Saboohi’s Salon & Spa in Mississauga, is part of a collective of about 30 salons and spas across Peel Region that have been lobbying local politicians and sharing the plight of the industry.
“We’ve only operated for about three months of the entire year,” she said, adding that there was at least an 80 per cent decline in business due to closures and the crash of the wedding industry in 2020.
Swalah defends the industry, saying that there is no evidence, to her knowledge, that salons have been drivers of outbreaks in Peel.
She says people in the profession are feeling undermined even when they follow strict protocols, including proper sanitization, which she says is typical of the industry before the pandemic.
“I feel degraded in some form,” she said. “That’s the anger that our industry is feeling.”
She said the laser treatment part of the industry has taken a huge hit because they were unable to do any work during the peak winter season.
Reeya Tanna, a registered nurse and owner of the Etobicoke-based Plumpitupp, a medical spa offering cosmetic injections, medical facials and esthetic treatments, said, “It has been difficult to stay motivated and hopeful when there is no end to the lockdown in sight.”
Tanna worked in the industry for a few years before deciding to open her own clinic. She was on verge of opening her own private clinic on Jan. 1, but those plans were halted by ongoing restrictions.
After months of not being able to offer her services in 2020, Tanna is now grappling with the uncertainty of when her clinic can get up and running.
“I have little hope of opening any time soon as the government has put our industry (as cosmetic nurses) in the personal care services sector on hold,” she said.
When asked why salons and other personal care services are not yet being allowed to reopen, Toronto Public Health referred to the province’s general COVID-19 response framework, which establishes thresholds based on criteria such as case counts and test positivity rates for when regions are allowed to ease restrictions on certain sectors.
Peel’s medical officer of health, Dr. Lawrence Loh, told the Star in a statement on Sunday: “Given the nature of the service provided, with a recognition that precautions cannot be consistently maintained (e.g., distancing) and are not always foolproof, many jurisdictions have targeted these settings for closures.
“There have also been notable outbreaks in these settings reported in other areas of the province, notably a large nail salon outbreak in Kingston. This resultant evidence and data have been built into the framework set by the provincial government.”
The debate over the science behind the lockdown was front and centre during Mississauga council meetings last week.
Coun. Ron Starr criticized the provincial and regional rationale for extending the closure of the personal care industry.
“What is the empirical data?” he asked. “What is the rationale, in certain areas, when we don’t have that data? Yet, this is the way medical people are saying it’s going to happen?”
Starr said that women, many of whom own businesses in the industry, are feeling the brunt of pressure from the uncertainty surrounding the closures.
“I don’t think our message from Peel is going through,” he said during a council meeting.
“Why are they shut down,” Carr asked. “Yet, we’re opening up other areas."
In responding to Mississauaga council on Wednesday, Loh said the region has not achieved the critical mass of vaccinations needed to achieve herd immunity. In spite of public fatigue over restrictions, Loh said he’s avoiding prematurely reopening then having to close again.
Loh said there needs to be an uptick in vaccination to lower the chance of severe outcomes for vulnerable segments of the community.
“Until that time, this still remains a novel threat,” he said, adding, “There is still the storm of the century that is raging out there.”
He cautioned that while some people question the science behind his decisions, “the reality is, we’ve seen what happens in other countries where they get this wrong.”
“We’re so close to the vaccine,” he said. “We’re so close to warmer weather, where we can start to open with confidence again.”
With files from The Canadian Press
Jason Miller is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering crime and justice in the Peel Region. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach him on email: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @millermotionpic
Jason Miller, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star