Editor’s note: Some names in this story have been changed to protect identities. 

Jane, a Raleigh-based cosmetologist, wanted to keep working when her salon closed March 25. She didn’t know providing in-home manicures was illegal.  

Last month, Gov. Roy Cooper ordered all hair and nail salons to close as COVID-19 spread in North Carolina. But Jane, who asked Carolina Journal to change her name to protect her identity, didn’t want to file for unemployment benefits. Not if she could keep working. 

Would she give an in-home manicure? One client asked.

She’d never done home services before, Jane told CJ. Never even considered it an option. But why not? It seemed a good way to help clients from the safety of their own homes. Jane took a few days to collect equipment. She stocked up on gloves, sanitizers, and other protective equipment. She launched an ad on Craigslist.

“My clients saw I was taking extra precautions,” she said.

Countless customers called and texted. Appointments were made. Then, suddenly and without warning, it all fell apart.

First came attacks on social media.

“People were saying, ‘I want to report this girl,’” Jane said. That was before Cooper even issued a statewide order to stay home, she said. When the governor announced a 30-day shelter in place beginning March 30, the nail technician didn’t realize she could be slapped with a Class 2 misdemeanor — and potentially lose her license.

But when the social media threats worsened and Jane learned her concierge manicure business was illegal, she yanked her Craigslist ad, canceled her appointments, and shrank from public view.

“I never wanted to break the law,” she said. “I never had any prior [criminal] history, anything like that whatsoever.”

What Jane didn’t realize, she told CJ, was that in-home salon services were illegal in North Carolina long before the governor signed an order banning them during the pandemic. As emergency policies force closings well into April or May, Jane — and others like her — are rife with questions about how they’ll survive the impending economic slump.

Easing some occupational licensing restrictions is a good place to start, some policy experts say.

It’s illegal in North Carolina for licensed cosmetologists to make home visits, with a few specific exceptions, said Jon Sanders, director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation. State law makes exemptions for people in hospitals, nursing homes, rest homes, or for sick or disabled people confined to their homes.

“At this point, we’re all confined to our homes,” Sanders said. “It seems to me that it would serve the spirit of the law to allow in-home visits.”

But the point of Cooper’s order is protecting against person-to-person spread of COVID-19, Lynda Elliott, executive director of the N.C. Board for Cosmetic Art Examiners, told CJ in an email.

“The governor nor the board wants to punish people and have taken the approach to ensure they understand the order and potential for the spread of this virus,” Elliot wrote. Stylists should stay home, and clients should wait until salons reopen to schedule appointments, she said.

Yet some people are protesting loudly on Twitter and other social media platforms as they seek haircuts and manicures — which aren’t considered essential services under Cooper’s executive order.

“If you live in the Raleigh area, perform an ‘essential’ service, and also cut hair, lemme know so I can request an at-home ‘quote’ for your ‘essential’ services,” reads a March 28 tweet from Scott Lincicome, a trade lawyer and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.

*Googles “black market haircut,”* Lincicome tweeted.

With state laws leashing stylists to their salon spaces regardless of social distancing mandates, paying your stylist for an at-home trim is a crime.

“That’s insane,” said Shoshana Weissmann, policy fellow at the Washington D.C.-based R Street Institute. Weissmann, an outspoken libertarian researcher and commentator, focuses laser attention on occupational licensing issues. Issues that get especially tense where cosmetic lobbies and associations are concerned, she said.

State law isn’t the only barrier cosmetologists face in North Carolina, Weissmann said. Local ordinances add to the pile.

For example, Charlotte’s city code prohibits home businesses such as barber and beauty shops. In Raleigh, home occupation rules ban “nonresident employees” from visiting in-home “offices.” Clients, customers, patients, and visitors are also blocked from the premises.

That’s news to nail technicians like Jane, who’d never even given a thought to a mobile manicure service until COVID-19 forced her salon doors shut.

“Not a lot of regular people would know that,” she told CJ. “You would have to investigate deeply in order to know that.”

It’s one thing for North Carolina’s governor to make any type of in-home business visits a misdemeanor for public health reasons while the state battles COVID-19, Weissmann said. It’s another thing altogether for stylists to lose their cosmetic licenses or be fined simply because they want to serve clients at home.

“[That punishment] is just because it’s outside of a salon,” Weissmann said. 

For some hair stylists who work full-time in a shop, the legal consequences are a total dissuasion. Such is the case for Sarah, a Raleigh-based stylist whose name CJ changed to protect her identity.

“Some of my family members have asked me to cut their hair after my salon closed,” Sarah said. “I know some stylists who are cutting hair for their friends.”

Sarah doesn’t want to risk it. But the money would help.

“I’m eight-months’ pregnant, and the salon closing makes everything so uncertain,” Sarah said. Her husband works for UPS. She’s applied for state unemployment benefits. Her check hasn’t arrived.

“Who knows when it will get here,” she told CJ. If she’s lucky, she’ll get half a paycheck from the salon for March.

Even if she wanted to break rules and keep earning money, Sarah said, her pregnancy puts her at greater risk if she contracts COVID-19. Staying home is her best option.

Others are following suit.

“I’m sitting on my hands,” Savanah Pacheco, a Wake Forest stylist, told CJ. Pacheco specializes in men’s haircuts and is an hourly employee. She racked up 55 hours of work every week before the pandemic forced her salon to close. Everything was going great, she said.

Now, Pacheco is home, awaiting unemployment benefits from the state. She won’t be cutting hair anytime soon, she told CJ. Not until her salon reopens, anyway. She doesn’t want to inadvertently spread COVID-19. But Pacheco understands how some stylists may need to keep doing business just to make ends meet, she said.

Maybe stylists and clients should be able to make their own decisions about how and where they operate once the pandemic wanes, Sarah said.

“Maybe leave it up to your discretion,” she said.

Others don’t see it that way.

“If it was safe to go to someone’s home to provide a service, it would be safer to have that service in the licensed business where the proper equipment and infection controls can be adhered to,” Elliot, of the Cosmetic Art Examiners board, told CJ.

But that’s not necessarily the case, R Street’s Weissmann said. While cosmetic boards and lobbies preach health safety, and some salons meet exceptional standards, surveys — like one from the Rutgers School of Public Health —  show two-thirds of salon patrons come away with skin, fungal, or respiratory infections.

Salons are still more prepared to provide a sanitary, safe work space than many homes, said Tiffanie Whitt, who’s been a North Carolina hair stylist for more than a decade. For years, Whitt rented a suite for her business before deciding to establish her own Raleigh salon. It was set to open April 1. Now, instead of starting work, she’s at home. Waiting.

Whitt has four kids. One is at a high risk of complications if he contracts COVID-19. Providing in-home haircuts isn’t worth risking her license, much less her child’s health, Whitt said.

Still, Whitt’s business is delivering hair-color kits to clients who want to touch up their roots at home — with some professional guidance. The salon mixes the proper solution according to clients’ previous color specifications, she said, then bags it for drop-off at the client’s mailbox. Instructions are included.

It’s a move that’s stirred controversial reactions from some in the salon community, Whitt said. A regulatory gray area, so to speak. Some stylists argue clients shouldn’t color their hair without supervision from a licensed professional.

“I don’t see it that way,” Whitt said. Without access to high-quality salon products, people will go to local drugstores and buy color kits that yield inferior results. If people are going to dye their hair anyway, they should have the chance to do it well, she said.

The work is keeping some of her five employees in business making deliveries.

“It’s enough for some of them to buy groceries,” Whitt said. Every little bit helps. 

Cosmetologists need every break they can get, JLF’s Sanders said, since the short-term business climate for salons like Whitt’s “isn’t pretty.”

“Shops are going to close,” he said. “Stylists are going to lose places where they can legally practice. Policymakers need to ask how necessary, really, are those prohibitions.”

Governments are fully within their rights to tighten restrictions on salons to block COVID-19’s spread, but those restrictions must be evidence-based, Weissmann said.

“But if the penalty is just based on where [cosmetologists practice] rather than on coronavirus risks, that’s not OK,” she said.

It comes down to personal choice.

“It’s one thing if a stylist goes to someone’s house and is like, ‘You know, this isn’t a clean environment. I’m not comfortable with it,’” Weissmann said. “That can be their choice. But they have the training. They know the right way to do things and decide, ‘Hey, it makes sense to do it out of someone’s house.’”

“There’s no reason that shouldn’t be the case.”

As for Jane?

“I was just really discouraged,” she said.

She’s paying her way through college. She doesn’t have any student loans.

Most important, she’s not trying to break the law.

“I was just trying to do the noble thing,” she said. “I didn’t want to get unemployment benefits because if other people need that, then I would rather let them have it.”

“A lot of those people actually need it, versus me, who can still work for a living. You know?”