The Big Red Barbershop in Collegetown staged a short-lived comeback attempt on Monday, opening its doors to customers despite New York State's executive order stating that non-essential businesses remain closed during the COVID-19 outbreak. Later that day, at the request of the Tompkins County Health Department, the barbershop closed. It's the first publicly known case of a business trying an earlier reopening in Tompkins County.
According to Facebook posts from Lisa and Randi Cary (Lisa is the store's owner and lone barber), the store opened at 9 a.m. on Monday, May 11, with rules in place that would have limited the store to a one customer capacity, with face coverings and disinfecting the store between each customer. According to the Carys, by 3 p.m. they had received a call from the Health Department about the opening and had decided to cease operations again. The Carys are now preparing a lawsuit against the state seeking an injunction, which aims to push for some sort of economic re-opening or help for small businesses, and damages.
In an interview Thursday, Lisa and Randi Cary both said they didn't necessarily want to open the store, but felt backed into a corner by New York State: though sole proprietors, like Lisa, are now able to file for unemployment payments, it's been weeks since Lisa has heard back from the state about whether or not she's been approved, and in the meantime she hasn't received the $600 per week that was promised. They said they know of several other small businesses that haven't been receiving their pandemic benefits, only one owner they know is receiving it.
With rent and bills still due, matched with basically a complete loss of income, the couple said they felt boxed in. Considering the precautions they were taking, and the small size of the store (which has just one chair for customers), both of the Carys said they were not worried about catching the virus themselves and had instituted those extra protections to reassure any customers who did come in.
"It comes to a point where you say, do you risk losing everything you have or do you risk opening up?," Randi said. "You just have to go with your instincts."
"We were being very safe about it," Lisa said. "I'm just a one-chair shop anyway [...] I've owned this shop for 17 years. It would break my heart, there's no way I'm going to let my shop go."
Lisa, who owns the Collegetown store on Dryden Road, said she closed for the day Monday shortly after the health department called the store, intimating that the business could be fined by the state for opening, and Lisa additionally feared losing her barber's license, which is also issued by the state. The store drew about 30 customers during the six hours it was open, Lisa said.
When asked for comment, the health department neither confirmed or denied the situation at the barbershop or that they intervened. The department offered the following statement, via spokesperson Samantha Hillson: "Tompkins County is actively reviewing guidance from New York State regarding a phased re-opening. NYS on PAUSE states that non-essential businesses will remain closed until May 15, at which point a phased re-opening will take place. All non-essential businesses need to follow the industry descriptions on the NY Forward website. We are working closely with local businesses and the economic development agencies."
Ithaca Police Department chief Dennis Nayor said that they didn't respond to the shop's location at any point Monday, though confirmed that they were in contact with the health department just in case there was an escalation of some sort.
"We were in contact with the Tompkins County Health Department regarding the situation, however, our presence was not needed at the scene," Nayor said in an email. "The Health department spoke with the business owner who subsequently closed the shop in response."
Subsequently, the Carys started a GoFundMe page to support what they say will be there legal costs from filing a lawsuit against New York State. They have posted it several times and it has picked up plenty of traction on social media. The fundraiser has accumulated over $1,000 in one day from 14 donors since it was created, with a final goal of $20,000.
"We're good people, we don't want to do this, but we feel somebody needs to do this to try open up other people's eyes, Albany's eyes, just do what you say you're going to do," Randi said. "If you shut businesses down, and you say you're going to pay them pandemic insurance until the shops are able to legally reopen, then you've got to follow through on that. You can't make an empty promise on that and expect people not to revolt against it."
The Ithaca Times could not independently verify the existence of a lawsuit yet, though the Carys said it is being filed today by Buffalo-based attorney James Ostroski.
Later on Monday, Gov. Cuomo announced that the Southern Tier region could begin a Phase 1 reopening on May 15, though that won't include barbershops or salons. The Carys said they wouldn't try opening again due to the risk of potentially losing their license, and will instead hope that the re-opening allows them to start business again at the end of the month. In the meantime, Lisa is selling gift cards for people to support her business, as many others have done during the outbreak.
“People should feel encouraged that as a County and as a Region we’ve met the criteria set forth by the Governor; we have worked hard and thank the community," said Public Health Director Frank Kruppa in the health department's statement. "But, we do not want to be complacent, and we must continue following social distancing, mask-wearing, and handwashing guidance. As we begin phase one, the steps we take every day will impact our ability to move into future phases."
Tompkins County has launched a new Moving Forward web page that will be updated as more information on reopening becomes available. The new page can be found here (https://tompkinscountyny.gov/health/movingforward).