SINGAPORE - Players in the beauty care industry here feel they are being sidelined as more businesses return to operation in phase one of the country's gradual reopening.
While hair styling and colouring are now allowed, services such as body hair removal, eyebrow grooming and eyelash extensions are still deemed non-essential, and not yet permitted to resume.
It marks another blow for these local operators, who are already reeling from the two-month-long circuit breaker.
Forced to close since April 7 in line with stricter safe distancing measures, business owners tell The Straits Times they have drawn zero income for the past two months. Unlike retail businesses, they cannot take their services online although they have to continue paying salaries and rent for their premises.
Industry players are worried about the staggered reopening of the beauty industry. Some 12,000 people have signed a petition calling for fair resumption of beauty services post-circuit breaker.
The petition started by Lee Na Young Aesthetic & Academy seeks to "highlight the unfair classification and treatment of our business against other similar trades which are allowed to resume operations early in phase one".
It contests the rationale for permitting grooming for pets but not humans; or time-consuming hair treatments and not other beauty services that may be quicker.
In Singapore, the beauty and wellness industry has more than 18,000 businesses employing some 100,000 staff, according to the Spa and Wellness Association of Singapore (SWAS), which projected the figures from a 2011 Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (Iras) audit.
Major player Spa Esprit Group, which owns waxing salon chain Strip and brow grooming chain Browhaus, employs around 400 beauty staff. Founder Cynthia Chua, 48, has been feeling the heat.
Badgered by an "onslaught of e-mails from customers and staff" asking why her services are not considered essential, she penned a personal appeal to minister Lawrence Wong to seek clarity on the parameters for allowing certain businesses to open.
As a leader she needs to be able to answer her staff and customers, the Paris-based beauty boss tells ST in a Zoom interview.
"I don't have the answers. Everyone in beauty was waiting anxiously to open on June 2. When it was first announced (on May 19) that the economy was going to open in phases, the whole industry went crazy."
She sent the letter on May 28 and has yet to receive a reply.
Phase 2 or Phase 3?
Operators here say the uncertainty of not knowing whether they will be allowed to open in phase two or three, and when those phases will begin is unsettling.
It hinders their ability to plan finances efficiently. The difference between knowing whether to hang on for two months or five can determine whether the company should start laying off staff, says Ms Chua.
The Government's relief packages account for only 16.5 per cent of her overall business costs. A third of her staff are foreigners, who are not eligible for government grants. Most, excluding lower-wage workers earning a basic pay, have had to take a pay cut.
Half the take-home pay for many beauty staff hinges on commission, says Ms Chua. In the last month, four of her staff sought medical help for anxiety.
Many beauty operators here rely heavily on foreign labour to provide niche beauty services.
Since suspending operations in early April, beauty salon J. Lashes, which specialises in eyelash extensions, has lost $15,000 to $20,000 each month keeping its 20 staff on payroll. Owner Jenny Liu, 38, has four outlets in different locations and she is grateful that three landlords waived rental for two months.
But not knowing whether she will have to lose another $20,000 each month for the next six months is worrying. A third of her staff, who are on work permit, are struggling with their basic salary to pay rent and live here, she adds.
Aesthetic salon EstheClinic, which employs 12 local staff and six foreign workers across three outlets, has an added set of woes.
The business comprises largely IPL (intense pulsed light) treatments for hair removal and skin rejuvenation. Prolonged time away from monthly treatments can lower their efficacy and affect customer confidence, says London-based managing director Manon Allano, 34.
"Our customers would like to resume their treatments as soon as possible. With longer closure, they get the minimum effect of treatments done prior, so it may cause us to lose future business.
"Existing customers may also ask for a refund if they are not happy with their results," adds Ms Allano, who has around 800 active clients with ongoing packages.
"If the closure lasts for another few months, we won't be able to maintain our staff and may need to close one branch. It has been a cost for us despite the subsidies, but for the moment, we haven't laid off people and really hope we won't have to."
A case for the non-essential
Beyond the financial woes that come with being a business owner, operators believe their services are genuinely essential. Their customers certainly seem to think so.
The founder of beauty chain Rupini's, Ms Sivarani Rajangam, 50, has been fielding calls and texts from customers asking if she will reopen in phase one. The salon, founded in 1994, is largely regarded as a giant in the local eyebrow-threading scene, though it also offers services like body waxing, facials and massages.
Since June 2, Rupini's has reopened two of its four outlets to offer solely hair services, which account for just 20 per cent of the business.
"In May, when it was announced that hair salons could open, people were very eager to ask if we could operate threading," says Ms Rajangam. "Customers are getting impatient."
Hair removal and threading are less about vanity and more about personal hygiene these days, she adds. Before the pandemic, Rupini's saw about 80 to 100 customers a day, a lot of whom come in for full-face threading. A threading session can be as short as five minutes.
"They can skip facials. But some ladies have a lot of facial hair and it's so important for them to come twice a month to thread their upper lip or face. Now (the hair) is growing out and they don't want to pick at it themselves."
The closure of grooming services has not bothered social media manager Mya Kay yet, as she has been working from home since March. The 31-year-old has a package with Rupini's, which she used visit once a month for eyebrow threading.
But she intends to make an appointment first thing once she has to go back into the office. "I feel like a hairy crab hibernating. I'll probably get my eyebrows done first once the circuit breaker fully lifts; everyone needs to get their eyebrows sorted," she says.
Additionally, beauty operators are confident that their standards of hygiene are top-notch - and have been even before the pandemic.
Therapists at J. Lashes have been using hand sanitiser, sterilised tools and air ventilators to purify the air since the salon opened in 2017.
"Eyelash extensions are a sensitive business. We don't want to risk our customers getting an eye infection," says Ms Liu, adding that her regulars tell her they don't feel confident returning to work without their eyelashes.
"In the beauty industry, we care about hygiene more than most other industries."
At Strip, waxing sessions require both customer and therapist to wear masks. Therapists wear disposable gloves, there is no double dipping in the wax pot, and towels on the bed are changed for every customer.
"Do barbers sanitise the chairs after each customer?" Ms Chua challenges. "Why is a three-hour hair colouring session allowed, and a Brazilian wax that takes 30 minutes - and is further away from the face - not?"
"I don't think we pale in comparison in hygiene. If the Government clarifies the parameters that guided their decisions, maybe we could explain and overcome misconceptions that beauticians don't adhere to safety standards."
It would also give her customers clarity and peace of mind. More than half of her 70,000 customers from Strip and Browhaus combined have ongoing packages.
In the interim, many are "desperate" and have asked her to put together a home waxing kit. She has currently prepared 500 kits comprising a wax pot, wax cartridge and wax cloths to "stave off people's desperation for hair removal". The kit will launch some time in June.
Her team has had to scramble to film an accompanying online video tutorial on how to wax at home - though "for Brazilians we strictly can't", says Ms Chua drily.
"The intimate area is not really a place we can teach you (to groom) over video."
Personal care essential for mental health
Ultimately, what is "essential" in a time of crisis can be subjective, suggest operators. The boom in the personal care industry in the last decade points to new needs for a growing sector of the population.
"It's essential to look good for themselves - the minimum at least. It's for self-esteem," says Rupini's Ms Rajangam, whose clientele spans students as young as 13 to office workers.
Ms Farhanna Johari, 26, a former front-of-house staff at a local Spanish restaurant, says her monthly eyelash extensions and manicure appointments are among her "top needs", as essential as a haircut.
"I handle reservations and events - it's a lot of meeting people on a daily basis. These are essential needs for my personal grooming; they make me feel more confident meeting clients."
She hopes beauty salons will be allowed to open in phase two, when dining at restaurants will be allowed, as this is when she returns to work in the F&B industry.
Ms Chua agrees that grooming and looking good link to mental health. "You look good, you feel good," she says. "Mental wellness looks different for different people - a monthly wax or doing their nails can fall under self-care. There is a need to understand that mental wellness can help people persevere and go through this difficult period."
She adds: "(The government's) definition of essential services is not reflective of what the community wants today. Personal care can keep another important group of people very happy."
She hopes her letter can help steer a more solution-oriented conversation exploring concrete measures beauty operators can adopt to safeguard their business, and reassure the public: "We feel that if we can regulate our industry with comprehensive safety measures that surpasses the standard safe management guideline, this may ease the government's fear.
"The new norm is to learn how to cope with Covid-19. I think that will be a more meaningful conversation."
When she is not replying to WhatsApp messages about eyebrow grooming, Ms Rajangam is looking into how she can move forward with her services safely in the future. These include finding a way to space out queues, and implementing a booking system for threading appointments, which before were walk-in only.
The booking system is up and has started receiving threading appointments for July, assuming she can resume services then.
"We will last," she says confidently. "Beauty and wellness will definitely last, with the way demands are. Personal care has become a must; it's a lifestyle."