Too close for comfort: Belgian hairdressers seek shutdown

U.S. & World

A mannequin head with a scarf around the nose and mouth is placed on a tripod in the window of a hairdressing salon in Antwerp, Belgium, Monday, March 23, 2020. After Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes announced that hairdressers would still be able to operate, while many other stores were required to be closed during the coronavirus epidemic, some thought it was a bad Belgian joke. Fearing for their health, some hairdressers now are calling on the government to order the closure of all salons without delay. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

BRUSSELS (AP) — When the Belgian government announced last week that hairdressers would still be able to operate during the coronavirus epidemics, many in the profession were dumbfounded and furious.

Fearing for their health and bereft of the same financial benefits as other businesses which have been forced to close, angry hairdressers across the country have since been calling on the government to order the closure of all salons.

“It was a criminal decision,” Foty Kyriakakis, one of the many Brussels hairdressers who have opted to close anyway, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “Obviously there is a risk of virus transmission. We touch our clients.”

During the crisis, hairdressers are entitled to a nearly 1,300-euros ($1,400) monthly replacement income through the unemployment system. But because they have not been forced to shut down, they can’t claim the same level of compensation offered to other businesses if they decide to close their shops.

For instance, while a restaurant forced to close in the French-speaking Walloon region will receive a 5,000-euro ($5,400) indemnity, hairdressers will only get 2,500 euros ($2,700) for the loss of activity.

“Hairdressers are faced with this choice: keep their business open with the risk of getting sick, or closing their doors and losing money,” Mitch Mues, spokesman for Coiffure.org, the federation of Belgian hairdressers, told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

Although hair salons were only allowed to stay open by appointment with one client at a time, the government’s decision has left health professionals gobsmacked.

“Close hairdressers, now,” said the famed Leuven University virologist Marc Van Ranst in a message posted on Twitter.

The hairdressers exception came as other stringent lockdown measures were ordered, including for Belgian residents to stay at home and avoid contact outside of their family as much as possible. Authorities have repeatedly urged social distancing and said people should keep at least 1.5 meters (5 feet) from others.

According to the Belgian union, which represents 20,000 hairdressers, respecting such guidelines does not make sense in their trade.

“It’s basically impossible to leave a space of 1.5 meters between the hairdresser and the customer,” Mues said. “If a customer coughs, the hairdressers can’t protect themselves.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and there are more than 17,000 deaths worldwide confirmed so far.

Pierrot Corthouts, who manages a Jacques Dessange parlor in Brussels, said he sent all employees home after the brand decided to close all its franchises in France and Belgium,

“Frankly I don’t understand that some of us have decided to keep on working as usual,” he told the AP. “We are too close, it’s not safe, for both the hairdresser and the customer.”

In neighboring Germany, hair salons were closed Monday as part of the latest restrictions. In Spain, they were initially listed along with supermarkets, tobacco shops and gas stations as exceptions from an order to stop most commercial activity. The argument at the time was that hair salons were a matter of basic hygiene. But authorities reversed that exception almost immediately following protests from hairdressers’ unions.

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Geir Moulson in Berlin and Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed to this report

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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