When Jean Lee opened Cozy Nails in Williamsburg last year with two friends, she was picturing a future where she could rest her hands from decades of hard work in the nail industry.
But when the pandemic hit, forcing salons to shutter for almost four months, the 59-year-old was forced to consider what she might have to do if the business closed for good. Now Cozy Nails has reopened, Lee is just hoping clients start returning for regular services, so she can keep her business afloat.
"I've been doing this for more than 30 years," she said. "This is all I can do. I'm getting old."
Cozy Nails is just one of the estimated 4,000 nail salons in New York City that had to close during quarantine and is now trying to rebuild. The industry supports some of the city's most vulnerable workers -- women from minority and immigrant communities.
Where will they go?
While nail salons are allowed to open again, they're operating with limited capacity and higher overheads due to spending on personal protective equipment and health precautions.
Spa Niobe owner Helen Kim said people were still feeling scared to visit salons and it was affecting owners and workers badly. Her salon is at 1012 Lexington Ave, and she said dozens of nail salons had closed in Manhattan in the last two months.
"Nobody wants to get a manicure right now," she said. "We have to pay the rent every month, and we want to keep our technicians, we don't want to lose them. Some have been with me more than 16 years -- more than my husband." Many techs may be eligible for unemployment, but others may be undocumented.
Kim knows personally how hard the technicians work -- she started doing manicures after moving to America from South Korea in 2002. "I thought, what can I do? I'm a woman. I cannot speak English well."
She started to work in salons, getting paid $40 per day while she learned the craft, building up to owning her own business.
She cried as she told the BK Reader New York's salons were doing everything they could to stay in business. "We don't know how we can survive. We need more help from the government, we don't want to let technicians go, where will they go? We have to stick together."
In April, Kim helped co-founded Nail Industry Federation of New York (NIFNY) to bring together New York City nail salons, educate and certify them for COVID-19 protections and show the city they are safe to visit.
Since launching, the federation has recruited more than 200 nail salons to do trainings to follow rigorous health and safety protocols. The protocols ensure employees are healthy, practice strict safety precautions and apply similar filters to protect clients. If certified, they get the NIFNY seal.
Salons with the NIFNY 'Seal of Salon Excellence' are required to temperature check employees daily and get them COVID-19 tests every two weeks. Masks and social distancing are mandatory, customers wait outside before appointments, all surfaces are sanitized between customers and clients undergo a health check and are sanitized upon arrival.
At Cozy Nails in Williamsburg, Lee is taking every precaution. She also has sneeze guards between every customer and technician, and they are even sanitizing customer cell phones on arrival. She hopes people in the neighborhood will start coming back out to support her.
"This is my last chance in my life. What can I do? I'm trying," she said.