LANSING, Mich. — Barbers plan to offer free haircuts on the Michigan Capitol lawn to protest the state's stay-at-home orders, a defiant demonstration that reflects how salons have become a symbol for small businesses that are eager to reopen two months after the pandemic began.
Third-generation hairdresser Scott Weaver, who owns five salons across Michigan, said his "forgotten industry" is getting much-needed attention after being initially dismissed as "just hair."
Barbershops, salons and spas stand at the forefront of small businesses that want to open again despite the risks of their services, which require employees to be in close contact with customers — similar to medical or dental care. The coronavirus has contributed to more than 5,000 confirmed deaths in Michigan, the fourth-highest toll in the country. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's closure of nonessential businesses is among the nation's toughest and is in effect at least through May 28.
Weaver credits a 77-year-old barber with helping to fuel the movement to resist Whitmer's sweeping stay-at-home orders.
But Weaver said Karl Manke's decision to open his doors in violation of the governor's mandate has put Whitmer and law enforcement in a tough spot. He said Michigan's 75,000 barbers and cosmetologists have "been heard" and that they should focus on working with her administration to ensure a safe reopening.
"I can truly see this through both lenses," said Weaver, who does not plan to attend the protest scheduled for Wednesday.
While new infections have flattened, Whitmer, a Democrat, is being cautious with what she calls a "slow re-engagement." She has opened construction, manufacturing and outdoor industries, along with real estate. Restaurants and bars reopen Friday in less populated northern Michigan.
"I would love to go get my hair done, too," Whitmer told Kalamazoo television station WWMT after saying it is "very unlikely" salons will open next week. "But the nature of that personal service is such that it's intimate, it's close. You can't social distance and get your hair cut."
Manke has been the star at rallies outside his shop in Owosso, 30 miles northeast of Lansing. His license was suspended last week by Michigan regulators.
"We all have the same spirit and the same soul for freedom," Manke said this week. "One of the things I want to emphasize, Michigan, all of you business owners, you beauticians, you barbers, massage therapists — all of you. Open up your shops! Stand up and show up!"
A member of the state cosmetology board, Weaver has used the lockdown to prepare — buying masks, face shields, plastic dividers and upgrading technology so customers at his Douglas J Aveda Institutes & Salons can pay with an app instead of at a register. The business qualified for forgivable federal loans to bring employees back on the payroll, but he said the money will soon dry up.
"We're really hoping that we get back to work sooner than later here," Weaver said.
Similar debates are unfolding in other states.
Hair and nail salons along with barbershops began reopening in much of Florida last week. In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont on Monday delayed a plan to let them reopen this week and aimed instead for early June. The Connecticut Beauty Association, which has more than 3,600 members, had expressed concerns for members' safety.
New York authorities are investigating an upstate barber who contracted COVID-19 after he kept cutting hair in violation of a lockdown order.
Manke was joined this week by Shelley Luther, a Dallas salon owner who was jailed for opening her shop before the Texas governor intervened. Luther said her employees in Dallas wash the hair of women with disabilities.
"Salons should be the first thing to open up after hospitals," she said.
Wednesday's "Operation Haircut" protest is being organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition, which led a car-based rally against Whitmer's orders in April. Organizers expect 25 to 30 people will cut hair, groom dogs or offer massages.
"The haircut situation was something we felt was symbolic of all service industries. This was something we felt we could highlight, set it up and show it can be done safely," said Rosanne Ponkowski of West Bloomfield, president of the coalition.
Whitmer "keeps saying only essential businesses. Every business that is making a profit is essential to somebody or they wouldn't be there," Ponkowski said.
The governor has a warning for protesters who get out of hand.
"We don't want to have to write tickets, but if that's what's necessitated, it may have to happen," Whitmer said.