Longer opening hours, visor-wearing stylists and reduced capacity could be the new normal at hairdressing salons here when business resumes, says one top stylist.
Award-winning Paul Stafford, who runs his own salon on Belfast's Lisburn Road, said that as of June 1, he and his team will be looking at putting plans in place for reopening when Northern Ireland reaches stage four of the Executive's lockdown exit strategy, the stage when "other 'contact' retail (hairdressers, fitness studios, tattoo and piercing parlours) can open subject to mitigations following risk assessment".
What people probably don't fully appreciate until now is the fact that hairdressing is not a service.Paul Stafford
"There's no doubt the salon is going to look and feel different. It will be a completely new experience," said Mr Stafford.
"What people probably don't fully appreciate until now is the fact that hairdressing is not a service, it's an experience and there's a social connection there, a bond and friendships, and some of that might be lost when we reopen." He believes masks, gloves, a reduced menu and longer opening hours will all be part of our new normal.
According to the National Hair and Beauty Federation, there are some 1,500 hairdressing salons here employing around 7,000 staff and generating around £169m annually. This does not include self-employed mobile stylists.
"Our industry in Northern Ireland is up there with the best in world. I'm very proud with the levels of artistry here and what we need now is the whole industry to come together and make sure that we follow the right procedures and aren't left threatened by people who challenge our businesses by doing things illegally," added Mr Stafford.
"We are quite efficient and work on a tight schedule but under new guidelines there will be literally no waiting time. It will be a case of making sure clients come in on time and are taken straight through, using an efficient system.
"At the outset we, personally, will be expanding hours, swapping our normal eight-hour day to 12 or 14 hours with staff working shifts. That could see us opening from 7.30am and closing at 8pm.
"We have a 16-seater salon and we will be reducing that to four compartments with visors and enough space between."
Preparing for such scenarios at beauty-based salons here is manufacturer Crossen Engineering, which is already making visors for the NHS.
It is starting to increase its lines to accommodate hair and beauty businesses in the run-up to reopening.
"We are beginning to see other industries order visors for when they reopen. Places like hospitality establishments, hairdressers and beauty salons," said managing director Paul Crossen.
"This is all hypothetical and all we can do is plan for every scenario," Mr Stafford is quick to point out.
"It's not as simple as ticking all the boxes, this has to be put into practice and it could be a case that it's just not working, it's not efficient and that will be problematic.
"I have spoken to friends in Italy and Germany where there are restrictions and guidelines, but no one is monitoring them. The worst thing that could happen is another spike in October, so I would advise clients now to sit tight.
Hair is very important but there is a bigger issue out there.Paul Stafford
"Yes, your hair might look bad and I'll tell you if it looks bad, but stick a hat on, put your hair up, go for a walk and wait until it's ready." To keep his clients' spirits up during lockdown, Mr Stafford has created a series of 'The Virtual Chair' chats with local personalities on his Instagram page.
"It's me having conversations with people like Colin Davidson, author Oliver Jeffers, musician Mickey Bradley from The Undertones and broadcaster Pamela Ballantine," he explained.
"They're typical of the conversations we would have if I was cutting their hair, and that has brought a great community back together.
"We've had a bit of fun and it shows people that this is what they're missing. It keeps the brand out there and lets our customers know we are there for them and we're getting more and more people tuning in.
"We understand that hair is very important but there is a bigger issue out there; this virus is killing people and there have been around 500 needless deaths here. At our salon no one has been left untouched by it, but we should come through this pandemic in a way that shows empathy.
"We have been indirectly impacted at the salon and we would like to do this in a respectful way that is safe for everyone."