Monday marked a big day for Natalie Nepomuceno, a hairstylist and owner of a salon in Mountain View. After being forced to shut down for four months during the coronavirus pandemic, she was finally allowed to reopen on July 13 and begin seeing customers desperate for a haircut.
It took a lot of prep time, too. The small Orbit & Rust salon on Villa Street had to get cleared out, sanitized and set up to meet rigid safety protocols. Each client's temperature was checked, and there was a mandatory clean-up period of 15 to 30 minutes in between each client.
But it didn't last long. In a surprise announcement Monday afternoon, Santa Clara County health officials said hair salons, nail salons, gyms and fitness centers -- all allowed to reopen on Monday, July 13 -- would now have to close as of Wednesday, July 15 at 12:01 a.m. The swift and unexpected rule change meant Nepomuceno, like many other business owners, had to shut down after only 48 hours.
"It's heart-wrenching," she said. "At first we had to wait until the end of May, then June and then July. Then they say you can open, but now you can't, then you can, and now you can't again. It's just a roller coaster."
The surprise reversal has left the local business community reeling, adding to what had already been a baffling reopening plan this month. The source of the problem has largely been conflicts between the county's reopening plans and ever-shifting rules by the state of California.
When Santa Clara County Public Health Officer Sara Cody announced that hair salons and gyms could reopen, it was initially denied by state officials. Within days, the two agencies had resolved the problem, and Santa Clara County was clear to move forward.
But at a noon press conference Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that new restrictions would be put in place to stop the surging number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations reported throughout the state of California, including a significant increase in both Santa Clara and Los Angeles counties. Counties on the state's "monitoring list" are subject to more restrictions, including a ban on indoor hair salons and fitness centers.
Adding to the confusion over the rule changes, Santa Clara County had been taken off the state's monitoring list, but was added back on Sunday, July 12, something that wasn't well-publicized until late afternoon on Monday, July 13.
In a statement Monday, county health officials called Newsom's restrictions "bold statewide action" in direct response to a troubling rise in COVID-19 cases -- even if it does directly contradict the county's reopening plans that took effect on the same day.
"The fight against COVID-19 is unfortunately far from over," Cody said in the statement. "But our residents and businesses have shown how we can collectively make an extraordinary difference in saving lives and safeguarding our community."
The on-again off-again public health orders have been difficult for business owners, who have spent time and money preparing to open, said Peter Katz, president of the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce. He said it was confusing enough trying to understand the kerfuffle between the county and the state last week, but now businesses are being forced to shut down after just getting back on their feet.
"It's this U-turn within less than 24 hours that's so difficult," Katz said. "You have businesses, they are trying to gear up and trying to prepare, and all of the sudden it's not happening?"
Many gyms, including the YMCA fitness centers in Mountain View and Palo Alto, didn't even have time to open up, while gyms, including the City Sports on Grant Road, never formally announced reopening plans. The national chain 24 Hour Fitness opened up locations in Santa Clara County on Monday, complying with strict public health requirements, including a complete ban on indoor cardio equipment and a mandatory reservation policy.
Nepomuceno, speaking during a break between clients Tuesday, said it's been tough to cope with the news. She has salons in both Mountain View and Campbell, the latter of which has 15 hair stylists working there as independent businesses, and she feels responsible for them. She said stylists like herself have a personal relationship with their clients and would never want to jeopardize their health and safety, and that all the precautions were carefully put in place to make reopening work.
"It makes me so sad, now that I'm saying it out loud. It feels really emotional," she said. "We put a lot of time and effort into making sure that everyone is safe."
Other personal care businesses got the bad news early. Sherin Lee, owner of the downtown Face-N-Body beauty salon, said much of the services she provides are expressly prohibited in the county's reopening plans. Nail and hair salons got the green light, but it turns out that things like eyelash extensions and facials -- pretty much anything near the face -- were banned even in the Monday reopening plans.
"What's annoying is they told everybody that personal services can open up, so even our clients thought we were opening," Lee said. "Once you dig into the 10-page document, it says that it's prohibited. It gave our clients false hope."
Lee says her business has been ready to open for a while, and that she purchased cleaners, disinfectant and 5,000 masks in preparation, but she worries that they won't have permission to open for a long time. Meanwhile the bills are racking up, and she and other nearby business owners are struggling to pay the full cost of rent while being shut down. Unemployment checks from the state are going straight into paying rent for commercial space she can't even use.
"For me, as a business owner, the (unemployment) money is not enough for rent in Mountain View," Lee said. "Mountain View landlords are not doing enough for tenants."
With so much uncertainty hanging over the reopening plans, Lee said she doesn't know how long she can last on federal loan money. Deferred rent and loans only really delay the economic realities of the crisis.
Nepomuceno is facing a similar challenge. She said her landlords are nice people and she isn't seeking a complete break on rental payments, but the costs of the lease are stacking up.
"The expectation is to pay it all back later, but I don't know if I'll survive," she said.