“We’re the definition of hands-on workers. We’re pretty much breathing the same air as our customers.”
With few exceptions deemed “essential” workplaces like restaurants, which if they’re open are delivery and takeout only, close-quarters work environments are off limits under the current stay-at-home order in Mass, leaving untold numbers in a leaky boat without a bucket.
Under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program that passed the US Senate yesterday and will be voted on by House members tomorrow, even freelancers and independent contractors (in addition to furloughed workers) will qualify for weekly unemployment payments equal to one-half of the state average benefit plus $600. That’s potentially fantastic news; still, the impact on small business owners and entire industries has been dramatic.
For many who work in close proximity to people, it could be an especially long time before things return to normal. People try to maintain a social distance from their dentist on a good day, for example, but the cavity crew is getting its teeth kicked in at the moment, with the Mass Dental Society recommending dentists close their offices through at least April 6 “to patients seeking elective and non-urgent care.”
The same goes for barbers, nail salons, and specialty spas like Inman Oasis, which have also been left high and dry. And let’s not forget about tattoo artists, most of whom are also hired guns who get 1099s, and/or who pay rent to the studio where they work.
“My shop voluntarily closed before the board of health stepped in,” Leelee Couture of Red Elk Tattoo in Abington said. “We handle people as closely as nurses and medical people do. We knew if we stayed open we risked spreading this virus. Not just to us, [but to] other people, our families.”
As for working from home …
“I’m not going to tattoo out of my house,” Couture said. “I would risk bringing someone in with the virus and risk more community spread. … We put our machines down to help the common good. It sucks, but it’s for the best.”
Freelancing with the ink gun is out of the question for these artists. In that sense, they’re shit out of luck.
“People were already cancelling over corona a while back,” Jess Braley of Sanctuary Tattoo in Plymouth said. “Working at home or worse—at customers’ houses—is a huge no-no, and honestly puts the artist and the clients at more risk. Not only are you fighting your normal sterile work environment battles, but corona too? It’s too much. We work under strict bloodborne pathogen protocols; you’d think it’d be easier to adapt, but even the strictest standards wouldn’t keep me six feet away from a client”
A tragic theme throughout these stories is the plight of the double-fucked folks.
“My girlfriend is a barber in Boston,” Jay Morin of Skin Deep Tattoo in Abington said. “We both make good money when there isn’t a pandemic, but this industry has high risk for economic catastrophe and infection. Our shops decided on our own to close down before the town asked. It’s the right thing to do.”
Ghost in the Machine Tattoo Shop owner Erik Rieth echoed the sentiments of others: “We’re fucked. If we don’t tattoo, we don’t get paid. Technically, my guys are independent contractors … and I put the roof over their heads.”
Rieth’s five-man roster of four tattooers and one assistant voluntarily shut down their place in Brighton on the 17th.
“A tattoo shop is one of the cleaner businesses you could walk into,” Rieth added. “We were wiping down the phone, keyboard, mouse, door handles because it was flu season anyways. At first, we were gonna limit the number of walk-ins. We removed business cards, portfolios, anything people would touch from the sitting area. Then we decided to go appointment only, but 48 hours later it was clear we had to shut it down.”
Awful situation aside, some people were even relieved.
“It was necessary, but difficult,” Rieth said. “We’re the definition of hands-on workers. We’re pretty much breathing the same air as our customers. A lot of shops held out until the bitter end. The thing is, it came on so quickly and suddenly, no one had a chance to sort this out. [We had] appointments for Wednesday, but we closed it down Tuesday. We thought we were being conservative about it.”
The hope is that “back to normal” will come soon enough. Whatever nebulous number the powers that be float publicly, however, is not worth banking on. The question, of course, is what “normal” will look like for the many lines of work that involve such intimate settings once this is over.
“There’s a good chance that people are going to be paranoid about getting close to people if it’s been six to nine months of being told to avoid human contact,” Reith said. “I put too much money and time into opening this two-and-a-half year endeavor to let it go under. It makes me as a biz owner feel all the more vulnerable. But every tattooer I know realizes that they have a job they love and are passionate about.
“We don’t have lobbyists or unions. What politician thinks about tattoo artists and barbers when they make these bailout bills? We’re a small business. We’re gonna be fucked.”