Close-up shot of a massage therapist doing facial massage to her female client at spa.
Close-up shot of a massage therapist doing facial massage to her female client at spa.

BusinessMarch 19, 2020

Covid-19: What happens when touching people is part of your job?

Close-up shot of a massage therapist doing facial massage to her female client at spa.
Close-up shot of a massage therapist doing facial massage to her female client at spa.

Alex Casey talks to six women about how social distancing and Covid-19 is impacting their contact-based industries, from sex work to beauty therapy.

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Social distancing is one of the most important tools we have to prevent a community outbreak of Covid-19 in New Zealand. The official recommendation that people should try to physically distance themselves from others by two metres is currently being enacted in workplaces, school assemblies and eateries across the country. 

But for some, social distancing is not part of their job description. As many New Zealanders isolate themselves and physical contact is increasingly discouraged, industries dependent on close proximity and touch are feeling the pinch. So how are they going to cope with the Covid-19 world? And how can we still lend them a hand if they can’t use theirs? 

Massage bookings plummet

Lucy Suttor of Nicetouch massage on K Rd is usually fully-booked for the week by Tuesday. “Last week I started noticing bookings dwindling a little bit, but this week I have seen over 70% of my clients cancel. I’m in a unique situation of not only being a small business, but a small business that relies on physical touch to pay the bills.”  

Suttor says she is taking “every precaution under the sun” to ensure that she and her customers stay safe while she stays open. “I am calling people in advance of every appointment to make sure they don’t have any symptoms and ensuring they haven’t been travelling internationally, I am sanitising everything between each session and throughout massages as well.

“I’ve been advised by healthcare professionals that as of right now, without any cases of community transmission, it is okay to go ahead. But as soon as that happens, I’ll shut my doors.” 

Lucy Suttor’s call to action. Photo: Instagram

With a recession ahead, Suttor is aware that her service is a luxury that will be first to go if people need to cut costs. “I feel like I am heading into the unknown for a few months, which is why I cried when the support package was announced. It’s still going to be a big hit but it was amazing to actually feel seen and heard by the government.” 

Suttor is bracing for impact, but continues to share messages on social media about ways to help local businesses just like hers. “This is a hugely important time to throw your support behind small business if you can – cafes, bakeries, record stores, they all need it. And if you don’t want one on one contact, then buying vouchers and merchandise is a great way to help us out.” 

Hairdresser foresees closing doors

Lauren Gunn is the founder of Colleen, a salon further along K Rd. She says she’s also expecting to be forced to shut the doors sometime in the near future. “I will be looking after my staff no matter what happens. We are trying to be reasonable and measured and really reassure each other and our client community that they are going to be taken care of.” 

Cancellations at the salon have spiked this week, and Gunn is anticipating more as the Covid-19 fears continue to grow. “When there’s a crisis, you find out who is prepared – most hair salons are small businesses and there are over 3000 in New Zealand. A lot of owner-operator businesses are just working on cashflow, so that’s really going to hurt a lot of people.” 

Colleen on K Rd. Photo: Facebook

While they are still taking bookings, changes have been made. “We’ve extended appointment times so we have less clients in the salon at once and we’ve increased appointment lengths so there is extra time to sterilise all equipment. We have hand sanitizer and alcohol spray everywhere, we use compostable towels, and single-use capes – I’d say we were in a pretty good place already.” 

And if a customer walks in and displays any symptoms of flu, they are to be turned away immediately, a practice that Gunn hopes will stick around long after Covid-19. “In previous flu seasons the protocol has been pretty blurry. People come in sick with coughs and runny noses and we haven’t felt that it was appropriate to turn them away.

“This has empowered us to have the authority and actually step in and protect our health without causing offence. I hope a that will continue beyond this.” 

Sex workers told: look for new income

Dame Catherine Healy, national coordinator for the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, says that Covid-19 has had an immediate impact on sex workers across New Zealand. “We are warning people that things are going to get rough because of the combination of the pending recession and the nature of transmission.” 

Alternate methods of non-contact sex work are being suggested, some of which Healy says she hasn’t seen in a long time, such as peep shows and voyeurism. “There’s also cam work, but that’s not a big money earner generally. When you think we have several thousand sex workers at the moment, the best suggestion is for them to find alternative income.”

Dame Catherine Healy. Screenshot: TVNZ

But seeking that alternate income or support can be difficult given the stigma around the profession, says Healy. “People might feel uncomfortable about declaring it. A lot of sex workers operate without ACC records or have been working in a cash economy. We’re dealing with a population that is mostly younger, so that stigma can be really angst-inducing.” 

The official advice from the NZPC is that sex workers should approach Work and Income NZ “sooner rather than later” and trust that there is an obligation to support them that is protected under the Prostitution Reform Act. “We aren’t mucking around,” says Healy. “We are telling people to go and get financial help as early as they can.

“Sex workers are resilient, of course, but this a whole other way of thinking now.” 

Nail artists face closure

“I feel like I’m floating a little bit” says nail artist Tanya Barlow, owner and operator of Hello Tanya. “I’m already getting a lot of cancellations, people are having their events cancelled so no longer need their nails done or are just worried they can’t afford it.” Working out of her Mt Eden home, she is prepared to close as soon as community transmission of Covid-19 is confirmed. 

“I’m not an idiot, I fully intend on shutting my doors for as long as we have to. The beauty of being a creative is that, like every artist I know, I’ve got three or four side hustles.” She’s just ordered a new batch of cuticle oil pens, because “dang, we need some hydration after all that hand-washing,” and is going to renew her focus on Dangly Bits, her earring line. 

Hello Tanya’s nail art. Photo: Instagram

While she’s taking hygiene seriously, Barlow says that it is a two-way street. “I think everyone needs to take responsibility. We are being extra careful and washing hands, sanitising, wearing gloves and masks to reduce the risk as much as possible. But if we have sick clients that are like ‘fuck it, I’m going to put myself first’ then that’s when we get into big trouble.”

There are other ways you can support small businesses without having to spend a cent, says Barlow. “It sounds so boring but engaging with us on social media and sharing our content can really make a big difference to small business. Even if it is just a like or a comment, every bit counts. Amplify voices of others or those who have less privilege than you.

“And if you can manage it, buy a voucher to cash-in six months down the line to give yourself something to look forward to.” 

Makeup artists brace for winter

Bookings for makeup artists have plummeted over the past week, with both the Lord of the Rings Amazon series and the Avatar sequels halting production in New Zealand. Travel restrictions have also seen hundreds of weddings cancelled, which has led to mass cancellations of bride and bridal party makeup. 

“This is supposed to be the busy season that sets us up for the winter lull,” says one freelance makeup artist. “There are going to be huge knock-on effects for us.” 

Another makeup artist currently employed by a major television channel feels “lucky” to still have the same amount of work as usual, but is still being extra vigilant when it comes to hygiene. “I’m asking guests to bring in their own makeup and makeup brushes now,” she says, “because as far as I know makeup counters are issuing a no-contact policy.” 

Sephora Queen Street. Photo: Facebook

An employee at Mecca confirmed that they have cancelled all their in-store makeup and skincare services and have provided single-use applicators for every tester product. If they see anyone using the testers directly on their skin, staff are required to dispose of the entire product. Any customer who displays flu symptoms in-store will be asked to leave immediately. 

Sephora have also suspended all of their in-store makeovers as a precautionary measure and are regularly sanitising all furniture and tester products. Across town, a beauty therapist at a popular Auckland cosmetic clinic says that they have been sanitising all surfaces and equipment twice over between each facial session, and wearing gloves and masks during each booking. 

“It feels kind of silly to still be touching people’s faces, I know,” she says, “but I need to pay rent.”

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