New York's nail salons hit extra hard by virus fears

by Matthew Lavietes | @mattlavietes | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 17 March 2020 18:30 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A shop clerk adjusts a bottle of manicure displayed at an exhibition and sale during Tokyo Nail Expo 2015 in Tokyo, Japan, November 15, 2015. REUTERS/Yuya Shino

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Worldwide economic fallout coupled with xenophobia has pummeled New York's nail salons

By Matthew Lavietes

NEW YORK, March 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Only two customers sat getting their nails done in Cynthia Cho's salon in midtown Manhattan on what normally would have been a bustling afternoon.

Since opening 17 years ago, business has never been worse, she said.

"We're empty," she said through tears. "I have to think about feeding my kids."

As the fast-spreading coronavirus pummels the global economy, businesses like Cho's are getting hit extra hard.

The disease has infected nearly 179,000 people globally and killed more than 7,000, including at least 89 in the United States, prompting countries to close borders, cancel school classes and ban mass gatherings.

Warnings to keep a social distance are pushing customers away from the intimacy of nail salons, often run by people of Asian-descent who also are feeling the effects of xenophobia stemming from the virus' Chinese origins.

Assaults on Asian-Americans have been reported across the country, including attacks on a man and woman, both of Asian descent, in New York City that police are investigating as possible hate crimes.

In one of the cases, a student in Manhattan was punched by a woman who asked, "Where's your corona mask?" and made anti-Asian slurs, police said.

Three-quarters of nail salon workers in the United States are of Asian descent, according to a 2018 study by the University of California, Los Angeles Labor Center.

"Customers aren't coming, and no one is sick here," said Celine Lee, a nail salon worker in New York's Brooklyn borough.

"When they look at you, they don't see a difference," said Lee, who is from Malaysia. "They see Asians, and they assume we're Chinese, and they shouldn't think like that."

Cho, who moved from South Korea when she was a child, said would-be customers are making unreasonable distinctions and noted that Italy was as much a viral hotspot as China.

"Would you say that about an Italian person? We're all American citizens," she said. "I grew up here. I came here when I was 5 years old. I'm the same as you are."

Salon workers are concerned for their personal safety as well, said Luis Gomez, organizing director of Workers United, which represents the New York Nail Salon Workers Association, an advocacy group.

The masks they typically wear for sanitary purposes are becoming increasingly difficult for salon shops to secure, and even with some protection, salon workers are uncomfortable being in such proximity to customers, he said.

"Workers are really worried," he said. "You're looking at the worst case scenario for their health, mental health and the ripple effects in the community from their economic loss."

Cho's shop, Apple Nails and Spa, typically has six full-time employees but she has cut her staff by half and slashed their hours.

New York City has ordered the closing of restaurants, bars, cafes, movie theaters and other venues for large gatherings.

Shops like nail salons have not been told to shut down, but Cho said she may have little choice.

New York City also has said small businesses that have seen sales decrease 25% or more will be eligible for no-interest loans, but Cho was hesitant about piling on unmanageable debt.

"In the end, if business doesn't do well and we close, we close," she said. "Then you have to just stop and pick up again and move on." (Reporting by Matthew Lavietes; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit

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