Hair pros in Milford adjust to new normal

Milford’s Downtowne Barber Shop owner Rena Kopinke cuts the hair of customer Andy Hammond. Ms. Kopinke has had to adjust to COVID-19 restrictions to reopen her business. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

MILFORD — Those looking to get their hair cut in Milford have over a dozen options. And while many stylists and barbers in town are busy, these businesses are feeling the impact of COVID-19.

Rena Kopinke has been cutting hair at Walnut Street’s Downtowne Barber Shop for 18 years. Before that, she was a stylist at the Dover Air Force Base, where she learned to work quickly.

“I was doing three minutes for every haircut, expect for flattops,” Ms. Kopinke said. “Those took about seven minutes.”

Ms. Kopinke was able to slow down when she bought her current business, but a few months ago, she was forced to cut back more than she would ever want to.

Per Delaware’s pandemic guidelines, Ms. Kopinke had to close the Downtowne Barber Shop in March. She wasn’t able to reopen until June.

“If it had been a little bit longer, I wouldn’t have a business anymore,” she said.

In the second phase of Delaware’s reopening, hairstylists are required to maintain 6-foot distancing when feasible, block in 15-minute periods between appointments for cleaning and have customers wait outside the store.

Furthermore, stylists are only allowed to operate half their stations, and there must 6 feet between each active station. Also, the total number of customers within a facility may not exceed 60% of the fire occupancy requirements.

For services that require customers to remove their masks, stylists are supposed to wear a face shield in addition to the standard face covering.

Some of Ms. Kopinke’s customers have returned, but not all of them.

“It’s still been slow,” she said. “There’s fewer people coming in here, so I don’t make as much money as I did before.”

Ms. Kopinke said her finances have not returned to normal. She is still paying off debts she accrued at the beginning of the pandemic.

“I had to not pay two months’ rent,” she said. “I couldn’t, so now what I do is I pay an extra hundred-something dollars each month to make up for the two months I didn’t pay.”

Phillip Michael Ruiz, who runs the Delaware Barber Co. on Causey Avenue with his father, Luis, said he’s also seen some resistance from certain segments of his customer base.

“Our older customers are still very hesitant, and a lot of our children, our parents are very hesitant,” he said. “What we’ll do is try to add a few more accommodations, have a few more precautions if we can, make sure there’s not that many people in here.”

But now, Mr. Ruiz said many of his regular customers are returning.

Elegant Styles
Karen Barner, the owner of Elegant Styles, has a tightly packed slate of clients every day, too. Her storefront is also on Walnut Street, just a building away from the Downtowne Barber Shop.

“March 24 was the first day of the close-down due to COVID, and I remember that very well,” Ms. Barner said. “Everything had to be shut down by 8 a.m., so we came in on the 23rd and did all we could do to prepare.”

She has made a point of staying positive through this trying time.

Ms. Barner and her staff “had a little bit of anxiety, a little bit of concern for the unknown. However, we did have hope that everything would be OK in the end.”

When the state permitted her business to reopen, Ms. Barner said she would initially only come in one or two days a week, as she was only allowed to style essential employees.

But she believes this measured return was necessary.

“We had to get our masks. We had to get our sanitation products, and at that time, it was very difficult to get everything together because everything was in high demand,” Ms. Barner said.

Ms. Kopinke said she received little outside support, except for a basket of masks, hand sanitizer and other coronavirus essentials from Downtown Milford Inc. However, Ms. Barner said she received more help from the community.

“We did get support from other business merchants. (Rep. Bryan Shupe, R-Milford) came around and offered some help, if we needed anything at all,” she said.

“A lot of help came from other hairstylists meeting together and networking together to help one another with different things that were out there for us,” she said.

Even though Ms. Barner has been able to resume her regular hours, things are far from normal.

“In order for us to keep our business open, we have to follow the COVID-mandated laws. I believe it’s very important,” she said.

“It is essential for everyone to wear their face masks, so that we keep everyone safe,” Ms. Barner said. “Not only for me to stay safe, but for my clients to stay safe.”

Furthermore, she carefully restricts how many customers she has in her salon at once.

“You have to be careful with overlapping,” Ms. Barner said. “You have to be careful when somebody gets up. You have to sanitize the seat. You have to make sure they follow protocol.”

Ms. Barner has owned and operated Elegant Styles for 17 years; however, when she was a teen in the cosmetology program at Sussex Technical High School, one of her first jobs was as a shampoo girl for Yankee Clippers Hair Designer on U.S. 113 in Milford, another hair salon working hard to follow pandemic rules.

Yankee Clippers
Tom Ducham, who has owned and run Yankee Clippers for 35 years, has also put a big emphasis on sanitizing since reopening.

“People like to see that you’re disinfecting things. I think it makes them feel a little bit safer,” he said.

Mr. Ducham’s business was closed for nine weeks.

“We didn’t reopen right away when they said it was OK,” he said. “We had a Zoom meeting between all of us and just didn’t think it was quite safe yet. We wanted to wait a week or two.”

He “didn’t want to force anyone to come back to work if they didn’t think it was safe enough.”

When the salon did reopen, Mr. Ducham and the staff had to make a lot of changes.

“Let’s say you’re doing highlights on somebody,” he said. “Normally, while they’re processing, you could do another haircut. We couldn’t do any of that. By law, we were allowed one customer per operator (at a time).”

Megan Embleton, one of the stylists at Yankee Clippers, said this made coming back to work challenging.

“Only being able to take one client at a time definitely affected our income, being commission-based,” she said. “That was a struggle.”

Still, Ms. Embleton was happy with the guidelines the state provided.

“I think that they’ve done what they can with the knowledge they have. I think sometimes, it’s better to be overly cautious than under cautious” she said. “If it makes our clients feel safer, then I’m happy to do it.”

This approach has worked well for Mr. Ducham, who said he is “pretty happy with the turnout we’ve had week to week.”

But early on, the fact that he was self-employed made it difficult to get short-term assistance from the government.

“The girls were able to collect unemployment right away. As business owners, we weren’t,” he said. “I went without any paycheck for eight weeks. I was finally able to collect something the week before we came back to work.”

That was something Mr. Ruiz and his father went through, also.

“With us being self-employed barbers, there wasn’t a whole lot of help the government or state gave to us,” he said. “Unfortunately, our finances are not back to normal. We are making due, but corona completely messed our finances up.”

Delaware Barber Co. owner Phillip Michael Ruiz trims the hair of regular customer Jason Shockley. Face masks are required during Phase 2 of the state’s reopening. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

But Mr. Ruiz said most of his regular customers have returned.

“For the most part, everyone has completely come back,” he said.

“In the beginning, when we reopened, it took maybe about a month for people to ease their way back into the barbershop,” he said, “but now that we’re already at least four months open, I think people are really starting to be more open-minded about going places again.”

Mixed views on masks
There has been a wide range in how customers respond to the COVID-19 precautions.

“Clients have been super good,” Ms. Embleton said. “If they don’t feel good, they have no problem giving us a call and telling us they can’t come in.”

Mr. Ruiz said his clientele is more divided on the issue.

“There’s two sides to the spectrum,” he said. “People are either annoyed that they have to walk in with a mask, or they’re annoyed that everyone else thinks they don’t have to walk in with a mask.”

Ms. Kopinke said her customers are tired of the coronavirus restrictions.

“They’re sick of it,” she said. “They’re sick of wearing a mask.”

Mr. Ducham sees the masks as a way to minimize the chance of another shutdown, a prospect that concerns him.

“I don’t lie awake at night worrying about it, but with the virus on the increase again in so many states and in Delaware, I’m just hoping there’s not another shutdown,” he said.

That possibility isn’t worrying Ms. Barner right now.

“I have had some of my medical professionals tell me that another shutdown is possible,” she said. “Am I worried? I don’t worry. However, we will cross that bridge when we get there.”