Tracy Tran’s years of savings are gone. Most went into the nearly $13,500 monthly rent she says she’s been paying for her shuttered business since March, when coronavirus public health orders forced her to close. La Orquidea Salon and Spa has been sitting empty ever since on busy North Santa Cruz Avenue in Los Gatos. So have most of the state’s roughly 11,000 other nail salons.
“It’s hard to tell how long we can keep up, maybe one month,” said Tran, a first-generation Vietnamese immigrant who lives in San Jose with her husband, two children and three elderly relatives. “I have 22 employees who also have families. On behalf of each of us, we need help.”
While most of the state’s businesses have been able to resume some activity, nail salons have remained largely closed under state and local health orders since the start of the pandemic. In most of the Bay Area, as well as Sacramento and Southern California, where cases remain widespread under the state’s new color-coded reopening system, nail salons are not yet allowed to reopen indoors. For many, outdoor operations aren’t an option.
About 70% of California’s nail salon workers are Vietnamese American, according to a 2019 report, and the pandemic is taking a heavy toll on a small business niche that’s been shut for five months now. The report was released by the UCLA Labor Center and the nonprofit California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, which advocates for nail salons.
Over a third of salon owners said months ago that they couldn’t pay rent any longer and an additional 29% said they’d be out of money in a month, according to a survey of more than 700 salon workers and owners released in June by the center and the collaborative.
“There’s not one Vietnamese American that doesn’t have a family member or close friends working at a nail salon,” said Tam Nguyen, co-founder of Nailing it For America, a coalition formed earlier this year to support health care workers and nail salons. “This is an immigrant, refugee population that’s going to get disproportionately affected.”
Of 10 nail salons this news organization visited in Santa Clara County, one had permanently shut down, seven remained closed and two were operating with a single technician, including one indoors against health orders. Phone lines at a dozen of other salons were no longer in service, suggesting they may have shut for good.
Some worry the pandemic might be marking the end of a decades-old, life-sustaining business model for Vietnamese-owned mom-and-pop nail salons. Nguyen estimates a quarter of California’s nail salons will close while other advocates say more than half won’t make it, leaving the nail industry in the hands of larger chains.
The connection between the Vietnamese American community and the nail business traces back to the first generation of immigrants who fled during the Vietnam War, when Hollywood actress Tippi Hedren recruited a local beauty school to teach the art of the manicure to dozens of women in one Northern California refugee camp near Sacramento. Today, half a million Vietnamese immigrants live in California, with more than 100,000 in San Jose, which has the second largest Vietnamese population in the country.
The Professional Beauty Federation of California in May filed suit in Los Angeles federal court to pressure the administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom to reopen hair and nail salons. A day later, Newsom announced hair salons and barber shops would be allowed to reopen — but not nail salons.
The state allowed nail, massage, and tattoo shops to resume indoor activities on June 19 under strict health guidelines. But some Bay Area counties, including Santa Clara, prolonged the shutdown until mid-July. By the end of the month, the entire nine-county Bay Area had landed on the state’s COVID-19 monitoring list, shutting down nail businesses yet again.
Tran was able to reopen for two days. She made about $800. Tran said her 6-year-old salon, which grew to offer limited hair and waxing services, gets about 90% of its income from nail services.
Nail salons are now allowed to operate outside in many counties, but most owners say they don’t have the outdoor space or a county permit do to so. Those who are working in parking lots and alleyways say they worry about summer heat, wind, and rains short-circuiting their equipment. A small minority are operating against the state’s health order, letting in only one customer at a time.
On average, a nail salon worker makes $21,800 a year, according to the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative. That’s less than one-third of the state’s 2018 median household income of $71,228, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Since the shutdown, many had to move out of their homes over fears of eviction, according to Thao Bui, community liaison for the Southeast Asian Development Center, a nonprofit funded by the city of San Francisco and serving the Bay Area. But without a job, Bui said, many of her clients were unable to find cheaper housing and have moved with other families into crammed studios.
Tran, like the owners of many other salons, received a federal small business loan. She was also able to negotiate with her landlord to bring her storefront rent down to $8,000 for five months starting in July and former customers started a GoFundMe campaign, which gathered almost enough to pay for one month’s rent.
Others have been relying on unemployment to pay part of their rent and on nonprofit organizations for translation services, access to housing resources, and for help applying for social benefits.
“I ask myself every morning: How can we survive?” said Tony Nguyen, a program coordinator for the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative. “We don’t have an answer.”
This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.