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‘How are we supposed to survive?’: Black-owned barbershops reopen, but it’s not the same

Threat of long-term damage to black cultural, economic life grows as pandemic drags on

CAPITOL HEIGHTS, Md. — Just off a bustling highway in Prince George’s County sits Crown Royal Barbers, tucked away next to a Jerry’s Subs and Pizza in one of the area’s plazas full of grocery stores and shoe shops.

It’s Kim Duncan’s first day back at work. A licensed cosmetologist, she cuts hair at the attached salon and also handles bookkeeping for the black-owned Crown Royal, which has several locations in Maryland.

In between appointments, she greets me at the door wearing a mask and face shield, shampoo dripping from her gloved hands, a reminder of just how much the coronavirus has changed things.

Like many businesses, this one has reopened after closing its doors in March amid state and county orders meant to slow the spread of the pandemic. Despite the economic devastation caused by the shutdown, Duncan, a mother of four, thinks it might be too soon to come back.

“Even though it affects my income, I’d rather be here to complain about it affecting my income than be six feet under,” Duncan tells me on this first Thursday in June. “Put it that way.”

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The sentiment explains the catch-22 many black people find themselves in. While they are more likely to die of the coronavirus, they are also less likely than whites to have jobs that offer paid time off or allow them to work from home, two important factors in being able to safely quarantine. About 30 percent of white workers can work from home, compared to 20 percent for black workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So far the pandemic hasn’t touched black household wealth the same way the Great Recession did. But it’s already having a disproportionate effect on minority-owned businesses, according to research by University of California economics professor Robert Fairlie. Many small proprietors have their net worth tied up in a venture, and losing that could knock their savings back by years.

“This could be pretty devastating for these businesses,” Fairlie recently told CQ Roll Call. “That is going to be a major impact on wealth accumulation, and that could have a disproportionate impact on minorities.”

Barbershops not only play a central role in local black economies as a popular form of entrepreneurship, but also occupy an important cultural space. It’s no coincidence that when the Democratic Party wanted to head off a potential “Kanye problem” by reaching out to black voters, it started holding listening sessions in barbershops and beauty salons. Intense debates on everything from music (Biggie vs. Tupac) to sports (Jordan vs. LeBron) to politics (Black Lives Matter vs. respectability politics) are hosted there.

That has been put on hold for the moment. Mandatory appointment rules have all but eliminated the waiting area. No longer do people sit chatting while children run around or read books.

Since reopening, Crown Royal’s operations have changed dramatically, according to Duncan. Customers must book appointments in advance, and only one customer per barber is allowed in the shop. They no longer accept walk-ins. That explains why there’s a woman sitting out front in a lawn chair despite the day’s 90-degree heat.

Duncan is very strict about this. She won’t even let me come in to use the restroom, since I don’t have an appointment. 

Signs hang in the window of Crown Royal Barbers in Prince George’s County, warning that appointments are now required.

Many barbershops make money by charging barbers “booth rent” for the chairs in which they cut hair. But right now the shop is operating at half capacity, and a lot of barbers aren’t even making 25 percent of what they normally would, Duncan says. Some are making house calls, while others have gone to work for FedEx or Amazon and probably won’t come back.

“Oh, it’s affecting us hard, very hard,” she says. “A haircut is $20 a head, and if we were doing 10, and now we’re doing five, how are we supposed to survive?”

Duncan says she’s been following the congressional debate on emergency small business aid, but the way the Paycheck Protection Program is set up, businesses like Crown Royal — with no payroll and its “booth rent” independent contracting model — don’t get treated fairly.

Has Congress done enough to help? “No, they haven’t,” Duncan says. “We owe three months of rent, and we have no income coming in for those three months.” Duncan has petitioned landlords to get the businesses’ rent payments stopped, but “they’re not listening.”

“We’re struggling here,” she says. “There’s nothing out here for the small black business or business in general,” she says. “Yes, the million-dollar companies? They’re good. They were able to receive their grant money. But we have nothing.”

FiscalNote, parent company of CQ Roll Call, has received a loan under the Paycheck Protection Program.

Prince George’s officials, after getting the green light from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, began a phased reopening on June 1. The county, known colloquially as “PG,” is one of the wealthiest majority-black counties in America and is part of a region that boasts high rates of black entrepreneurship.

It also has the highest number of coronavirus cases per capita in the state and the second-highest number of deaths. As of Tuesday, 607 people in the county had died of coronavirus, with about 10 percent of those reported since June 2, the day after the county reopened.

Crown Royal Barbers in Prince George’s County reopened in early June. “We’re struggling here,” says one worker.

Those figures stand against a grim national backdrop. The devastation of the virus has fallen disproportionately on black people, who make up about 23 percent of U.S. deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while accounting for only 12.5 percent of the population.

Black unemployment reached 16.8 percent in May, a peak not seen since the Great Recession in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, the economic shutdown has hurt black businesses the most among racial and ethnic groups, with a 41 percent decline in black owners from February to April, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

People will always need haircuts, but the future is uncertain for businesses like Crown Royal. As the pandemic drags on, the threat of long-term damage to black cultural and economic life becomes more real.

Throughout the 2000s, home prices steadily climbed in PG County. But that was before the 2007-08 housing crisis wiped out those gains. In a sadly familiar American story, residents here lost more of their wealth than those in majority-white neighboring counties.

Will black people suffer another lost decade, further widening the gap? “We’re in a position that we just don’t know,” says Duncan. “It’s the unknown… so you just don’t know.”

Michael Macagnone contributed to this report.