Dallas hair salon owner Shelley Luther has cannonballed her way into the national spotlight. Her brash act of political defiance flung heaps more mud into the already murky debate surrounding safety mandates amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Last week, the University of Houston released a poll indicating that Luther’s peers disapproved of her decision by a "nearly 5 to 1 margin."
In April, Luther defied both state and county orders to close her business, Salon à la Mode. She was sentenced to a week behind bars the following month. Thanks to an assist by Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Supreme Court, though, she only served two days.
Conservative pundits laud Luther as the embodiment of patriotism, but her early release has concerned plenty of others, including those in the Texas hair care industry.
“While Luther received considerable support from numerous politicians and groups, the survey suggests her colleagues in the hair care industry were much less supportive of her actions,” said Mark Jones, a research associate at the university's Hobby School of Public Affairs.
In May, Texas hair care businesses reopened sooner than anticipated, and some have credited Luther with paving the way. Yet other recently reopened establishments are going back to square one.
Abbott announced Friday the state had closed bars and whittled down restaurants’ seating capacity to 50%. Some North Texas hairstylists have wondered whether they’ll again be forced to close — and if so, whether it can actually be enforced.
Dallas’ Groove Hair Salon owner Niki Dean criticized Luther's decision in April to flout the state's order to shutter.
“No one approves of what that woman did,” she said. “It was all for show.”
Hairstylists are in a tough spot; unlike restaurants, they can’t offer their services curbside, said Gary Barnhart, co-owner of The Bearded Lady Barbershop in Denton.
Barnhart said several of his shop's barbers had difficulty signing up for unemployment, and some were running out of savings. Like Luther, he depends on his business to make a living, but he said he disagrees with her actions.
“In my mind, she set a precedent for all of us,” Barnhart said. “Whether or not they do say we have to close, I guess it’s just kind of up to us to decide whether we [do].”
Two North Texas attorneys wrote in a Waco Tribune-Herald column that granting Luther an early release could have lasting consequences. By giving her a pass, state officials may have unintentionally emboldened others to break whatever law they dislike.
“If any citizen or business could violate those orders or, for that matter, any law as they saw fit, then no rule of law would exist and anarchy would prevail,” they wrote. “Businesses might feel free to ignore health codes. … This must never be the case.”
Although he was nervous about reopening, Dallas' Revolt Barbershop owner Julian Palafox said he needed to make money to pay bills.
Barber school instructors inculcate the importance of sanitization throughout training, Palafox said. It wasn’t difficult to implement the state’s new cleaning guidelines since he already practiced good hygiene anyway.
Now, though, Palafox said he takes each customer’s temperature before seating them. Everyone must wear a mask, and no one can sit in the waiting area.
Palafox said he hopes that Abbott won’t walk back his decision to reopen the state’s salons.
“I’m worried about them closing us back down, really,” he said.
Like Revolt, The Bearded Lady requires customers to wear masks and has cordoned off the waiting room.
Although he's happy to be making money again, Barnhart is worried that other hair care business owners may ruin it for everyone else. Many Denton salons are more cavalier about enforcing mask wearing and social distancing mandates, he said.
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At least 13 states now require people to wear masks in public, according to The Hill. But even if Abbott winds up following suit, some constituents might not listen because of the example Luther set, Barnhart said.
Her act of defiance may have poisoned the well for hair care professionals everywhere, he added.
“If anything, she was rewarded by the people who said that we have to close," Barnhart said. "So now, if they say we have to close again, why should any of us follow that?”
With Abbott's latest order to shut down the state's bars, a new Shelley Luther could be waiting in the wings.