Long a staple of African American culture, style and spirited discussion among its patrons, African American-owned barbershops are finding themselves engaged in a debate over whether or not they should be open as their owners contemplate operating under social distancing guidelines, or not opening at all.
African Americans are experiencing a significant disparity when it comes to infections and deaths from COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released data for cases in which race was specified and their results find that 92,164 or 29.5 percent of Americans who have tested positive identify as Black or African American.
Concentrations of the disease have been in urban areas that have been densely populated with Black people for many generations including Chicago, Washington D.C., New Orleans, Detroit, New York, Boston and other cities. Public health experts continue to speak out about underlying disparities far too common in the African American community like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and other ailments which coronavirus exploits.
That means social distancing is crucial when it comes to stopping the spread. However, barbershops are places where that practice has been difficult, if not impossible, because of the nature of the work. Like other businesses, if a barbershop cannot serve its customers it will close and communities will not only lose an institution, but a much needed staple service.
"There's probably all kinds of barbershops talking about what's going on with our government right now," Mike Knuckles, 45, who is a barber at Select Cutz in Grand Prairie, Texas, told CNN. "If you lose a barbershop that's been in the community 30 years and has a tradition and respect in the community, that's huge."
Georgia has become a laboratory of sorts to see if reopening businesses like barbershops and hair salons can work. Although statewide case totals are up to more than 24,000, with more than 1,000 deaths,mayors and municipal officials throughout the state were livid when Gov. Brian Kempannounced last week that he would be lifting shutdown restrictions on those businesses.
“We cannot sacrifice the lives of people tomorrow to satisfy the wants of a few today,” said Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms in response to Kemp’s action. Some barbershops have chosen to open while others, like rapper Killer Mike’s Atlanta-based “Swag Shop” chain will remain closed.
“As a citizen in the community where people look like me, I’m choosing to stay closed because I don’t want to endanger [anybody]. And a lot of times, politicians have different views of things,” he told TMZ. “I think governors and mayors should all get on the phone together because as your constituents, we need you to do that.”
American Barber Association President Damon Dorsey told CNN the barbers he’s spoken to are worried about the future of their businesses.
"All are struggling with the uncertainty of the moment," he said.
That uncertainty also extends to financial solvency because many barbershops may not be eligible for the assistance the federal government is offering other businesses. Dennis Mitchell, who owns a shop in Harlem, N.Y., told CNN that his shop is in trouble because he does not qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program since the barbers who cut there are regarded as independent contractors rather than employees.
Under restrictions set by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mitchell has no choice but to remain closed until at least May 15 when the state says they may begin to lift part of the state shutdown, although it is unclear if New York CIty will be included in that lifting.
"It's kind of bone chilling," Mitchell said. "I have an apartment I have to pay for as well and people who depend on me to put food on the table. ... A lot of [Black business owners] are not going to come back from this."
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