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'It's Not As Personal:' Salons In Howell, NJ Cut Luxury To Reopen

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Monday saw New Jersey salons return to a new normal, a landscape which may not offer as many amenities as before.

HOWELL, NJ - Save for the past four months, clients were given the luxury treatment at Aurelio Salon & Spa with complimentary neck and shoulder massages, freshly baked cookies, a full-service coffee station. However, after reopening on June 22 in the midst of the current pandemic, the beloved Howell salon was stripped of most of its added perks, trading hot towels and personal touches in favor of face shields and plexiglass barriers.

According to salon owner Anthony Rosania, this is a phenomenon that all salons are facing to some degree.

"All of this we have stopped doing because of social distancing," Rosania told Patch. "We're trading cleanliness and security for that pampering experience that we're known for… it's almost as if you're going to the dentist or you're going to a doctor's office."

Similarly, NikkiSnips Hair Salon in Old Bridge currently touts plexiglass sneeze guards and sanitation zones in what was once a coveted coffee bar and snack area. In fact, the salon's waiting area has been entirely removed: instead of crisp magazines and hot tea, guests can now expect a mandatory temperature check upon arrival. Owner Nicole Allegro calls the change unfortunate but necessary, marking a startling shift for one of the few remaining industries that offer an intimate and tactile experience.

"This was one of the last industries that you could touch people and have that human contact and make them feel good," Allegro told Patch. "That's gone now, it changed everything. Now I'm not going to be able to hug my clients that I've been doing for 20 years. I feel like it's not as personal ... how are you supposed to feel like a VIP with a mask on? "

Rosania echoed Allegro's comments, stating that, for some, an act as simple as a haircut could be the most intimate experience an individual could get, especially after the isolation of quarantine.

"Your stylist actually touches you, and for some people that might be the only physical contact that they get ever," said Rosania. "They might be alone. You don't know what your support system is. The same with a massage therapist or a facialist: for some people, it means a lot more than 'let me just get my hair done.'"

On June 13, Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order allowing the reopening of personal care services, including those licensed by the Board of Cosmetology. But as the reopening date was unveiled and salons scrambled to meet criteria, order additional supplies and shift the layout of their storefront to accommodate social distancing measures, many questions were still left unanswered by the state, according to Rosania.

"They don't realize what it really entails being a hairstylist nowadays," said Rosania. "One of the regulations that they never really fully addressed was whether or not you can do facials or lip waxing ... the Board of Cosmetology said you can't do lip waxing because you can't remove your mask, but Gov. Murphy put in that if you have to remove a mask to do a service, then the stylist has to wear a mask and shield. So, which one do you go with? "

Online groups such as NJ Salons & Spas Coalition provided a forum for stylists to ask questions among themselves. Protocol surrounding blowouts to keratin treatments have been questioned within the group, as well as the use of cash tips. According to several salon owners, including Naleena Augustensen of Impulse Salon in Brick, social media groups have been the industry's saving grace.

"We really had to figure it all out and be each other's helper through this," said Augustensen. "The heightened level of the pandemic should've been handled better for our industry, and I'm glad that the girls stuck up and did the Facebook page, because without that, I think we would've been a lot worse off."

The next few months will be critical to local salons, who have spent the last few months paying rent and renewing licenses despite an industry shutdown. Allegro reports that she will still see a decrease in her bottom line even as her salon reopens, due to capacity restrictions and stylists' inability to multitask on several clients at once. The cost of reopening has been fronted by many salons as well, with owners such as Augustensen ordering supplies ranging from thermometers to specialty hands-free appliances.

"The initial cost of it was the hardest part, just getting the UVC Sterilizer, the sanitizers and the soap dispensers and garbage cans that are automatic. I think that, as an owner, that prep was a lot," said Augustensen. "They did not give us definite guidelines until June 13. So they gave us nine days to completely sterilize, find thermometers, which you can't find. All of this stuff is coming from overseas and China."

Despite the uncertainty that the next few months hold, Allegro remains optimistic that her salon will soon return to normal once given clearance from the state. In the meantime, it is the support from her loyal clients that she relies on the most. While she cannot offer the added luxuries of baked goods or brand new magazines anymore, Allegro stresses the importance of maintaining the connection between stylist and client by whatever means possible.

"These clients tell us more than they tell their families or friends," said Allegro. "I know more about my clients than they should know, and they look forward to that. You don't have to be the best hairdresser in the world, but the way that client feels in your chair for that hour, hour and a half that they're with you is the most important. "

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