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If these Black-owned businesses fail, the community’s health will be harmed l Expert Opinion

Black-owned barbershops function as community gathering spaces where people debate politics, family, and sports — and sometimes can even get health care.

Prentice Michael Boone helps teach his young students the art of being a barber at his Junior Academy course on a Friday evening in 2018.
Prentice Michael Boone helps teach his young students the art of being a barber at his Junior Academy course on a Friday evening in 2018.Read moreHeather Khalifa / File Photograph

The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for most small businesses but Black businesses are facing systematic disadvantages. An important part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Paycheck Protection Program, targeted small-business owners with funds to keep workers on the payroll. But this relief has only rarely made it to Black and Latinx-owned businesses.

According to a national survey led by Color of Change and UNIDOS-US, the majority of Black and Latinx small-business owners requested very little assistance to begin with, with 51% requesting less than $20,000 in temporary funding, and only 12% received the assistance they requested. Instead, large corporations with more capital received millions of dollars in federal funding even when they did not qualify.

In a pandemic that has disproportionately and severely affected Black communities, this economic inequity will deepen existing racial disparities in both wealth and health.

I am particularly concerned about the impact of the pandemic and these economic disparities on Black-owned barbershops. These businesses function as community gathering spaces where people debate politics, family, and sports. A haircut can easily last one hour or more. And the barbershop can provide needed health care. At Philly Cuts, a barbershop in the heart of West Philadelphia, undergraduate and medical students from the University of Pennsylvania have provided biweekly blood pressure screening and education for customers and barbers for the last decade.

Now, in preparation for the “green” phase of the state’s color-coded reopening plan, efforts have turned to reopening barbershops safely. Former Penn medical student Krystal Hill and Penn cardiology fellow Norrisa Haynes, in partnership with barbershop owner Darryl Thomas, formed a coalition of medical students, graduate students, and physicians from Penn to safely reopen barbershops in West Philadelphia called Safe Haircuts As We Reopen Philadelphia (SHARP).

As an infectious disease specialist, I joined this coalition to provide technical assistance to help barbershop owners mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19 to the community, to themselves, and to their family members. Walk-ins will no longer be allowed. Potential clients will be screened for COVID-19-like symptoms. And barbers and clients will use personal protective equipment to decrease the risk of virus transmission.

Safe reopening also requires establishing cleaning procedures between clients, limiting the number of clients allowed in the barbershop at one time, and enforcing social distancing between clients. The measures require upfront costs and expertise that many businesses do not have. And reopening for these businesses will be more challenging than ever, considering the lack of financial support at the federal level.

Barbershops run on small profit margins and owners are reluctant to pass the costs of safely reopening on to their customers. To cover the costs of personal protective equipment and restructuring for safe opening, we applied for small grants. Barbershop owners are also turning to the state with the hope of getting financial relief. However, with limited existing capital and limited access to the Paycheck Protection Program, some barbershops have begun closing permanently.

The disparate landing of funds from the PPP is just one example of why protesters are calling for reform. The recent killing of George Floyd by white police officers sparked outrage in our nation because it graphically displayed the work of racism that has been in our communities for years. This egregious act could not be ignored.

We should be equally outraged about the deeply embedded practices of structural racism that contribute to poor health and socioeconomic outcomes among the Black community. Black people are not asking for pity, we are asking to be treated with fairness on a daily basis across all sectors: criminal justice system, health care, education, and the economic sector. We need to better understand the extent of racial disparities in allocation of funds from the PPP and understand why these disparities were allowed to exist.

Florence Momplaisir is an infectious-diseases specialist and physician-scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who focuses on reducing racial disparities in health outcomes, particularly for people living with HIV.