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Barber to Government: 'Haircuts boost mental health - let us open for just two weeks'

Barber Robbie Connaughton calls on the government to consider allowing salons to open temporarily to allow them to serve customers.

Robbie Connaughton

LIKE THOUSANDS OF small business owners, I closed the doors to my barbershop – Barber Bob’s in March last year in solidarity with the national effort to “flatten the curve”. At that time not once did it enter my head that almost 12 months later the doors would still be closed.

We are based in Monksland, Athlone in Roscommon and like others, I re-opened when permitted last year having put considerable time and money into additional public health measures to ensure customers and staff were safe – something that paid off with no outbreak linked to Barber Bob’s during the time we were open.

I grew up in business, with my parents operating pubs in the West of Ireland. I learned a lot about the professional side of the business from my retail work in sales and merchandising and, growing up with parents who taught me a lot about being self-employed. I set up my salon in March 2012 with two staff – and I haven’t looked back since.

Many will have seen reports today of a salon defying the Covid regulations by opening its doors to customers. While I personally don’t condone these actions, I have so much sympathy for everyone in our industry and in the service industry overall. This pandemic has hammered us. We are struggling, with many hairdressers and barbers unable to manage on the PUP payment alone.

Let us open for two weeks

I understand and appreciate the seriousness of the evolving situation with regard to Covid and that the focus has been on preventing hospitals from becoming overwhelmed and re-opening schools. However, I have made a proposal to both the Taoiseach and NPHET to re-open barbers and hairdressers for a two week period only. Let’s be honest, we may have taken to online shopping in the last year, but you can’t get a haircut online. That is part of why I have made my proposal.

From recent reports, it appears it could be some time before barbers and hairdressers are permitted to re-open. If this is the case there will be some negative outcomes from such a decision, which I believe will contribute to the spread of Covid-19.

The black market has formed since Covid arrived. This, in my opinion, is not because people genuinely don’t care about breaking Covid regulations, but that they feel getting a haircut is enough of a reason to flout the rules.

There are many thousands of workers who are still getting up in the morning to go to work in this country. From what I know, hairdressers and barbers are being contacted by male customers in particular who are not comfortable with presenting to work with longer hair. For many customers, there is a mental health implication as they feel unhygienic and undignified when left in need of a haircut.

My colleagues and I have not operated in this way and I do not condone hairdressers or barbers giving in to the temptation by embracing the black market. However, with thousands in our industry on the PUP and struggling to pay bills, you can see why it is tempting for them. The longer the current situation prevails the more that temptation will grow – due to financial pressure – to say yes to the requests from customers.

Why we should open

We believe that customers frequenting barbershops and hairdressers are extremely well protected from Covid-19 and that our industry is not a high-risk environment in the spread of the virus.

We are one of the few groups within the hospitality and retail sectors where both customer and staff members are wearing a mask for the entire duration of the visit.

This is along with hand sanitisation at entry and exit and the additional cleaning protocols that have been put in place. Indeed, this industry has long been familiar with a need for sanitisation which pre-dates Covid-19.

Hygiene has always been a massive part of my approach to business and I have driven staff mad about cleaning over the years. I’m probably a bit obsessive about it definitely but it pays off to be that way in business. Your business can never be clean enough, I learned that in the pub trade.

While I understand that it is difficult to introduce different rules for different sectors I feel consideration should be given to the public health measures that have been put in place by those in our industry. Therefore, I am proposing a two-week window during which barbers and hairdressers would be allowed to open, with all the strict health measures in place.

I believe this proposal should be given consideration given the nature of the negative impact on people’s mental health resulting from not being able to obtain a haircut, which for some is a heavy burden on their wellbeing during already difficult times.

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Our business is at the heart of the local community. We know our customers, we know their families and we are there for them for all occasions in their lives – first haircut, a haircut for a job interview, the cut for their wedding or holiday.

When they sit into that chair it is like a form of therapy for many customers, they chat about families, jobs, everything from happy occasions to the more troubling times of their lives. And that is something that is now missing.

We are a family-oriented barbershop and we share in the events of customers’ lives. That is what has been missing for the last few months – for staff and customers – we believe that we can re-open safely, even just for a short period, and provide a much-needed service that will help to improve the mental health and well-being of our customers and prevent the growth in black-market services.

Robbie Connaughton runs Barber Bob’s in Monksland, Athlone, Co. Roscommon.

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