Barber preparing for clients ‘looking like Chewbacca’ as NI restrictions eased
Gregory McNeil has looked to diversify his business during a stop-start 13 months
Greg McNeil, of Barenuckle Barbers, outside his premises at Spencer Road in Derry. Photograph: Trevor McBride
“The guys are going to come in looking like Chewbacca so it’s going to be a mission to get through them in a half-hour appointment,” he says. “But we’ll make it work.”
McNeil’s barbershop is just one of many so-called close contact services – including hairdressers, beauticians, tattooists and tanning salons – set to reopen in the North on Friday as part of an easing of the Covid-19 restrictions in force since St Stephen’s Day.
This and other relaxations introduced today are the first step towards the widespread reopening of society, ahead of the return of outdoor hospitality and all retail from next Friday.
McNeil is already booked out until mid-May. “I can’t even look at my phone, everybody’s texting, sending photos of their faces with their hair out to here,” he says.
But this time there is little of the excitement or anticipation that accompanied the lifting of restrictions last June. McNeil has been here before and Covid-19 precautions – from sprays to sanitise workstations to social distancing signs – are already in place.
“I think one of the challenges we will have will be people coming in and not wanting to wear masks and things like that,” he said. “People just want to get on with it now and get back to normality, whatever that is.”
During lockdown, McNeil has been expanding. As well as the premises on Spencer Road – which he is about to join up with the coffee shop next door – he owns two other barbershops, a sunbed shop and skateboarding shop, and is about to open a skateboarding park.
Though he enjoyed the extra time at home with his children, he says he likes to be busy and his new ventures were “mainly to keep myself active . . . I think it would be very easy to get stuck in a rut.”
Throughout lockdown he has been mindful of the mental health of his customers and staff. McNeil is part of the Lions Barber Collective, which offers training for barbers around suicide prevention.
“People tell us more than they tell their doctors or their wives . . . because we had so many people contacting us trying to get haircuts it was an easy way to check in with them.”
Others in his industry have been surviving financially by doing black market haircuts in breach of the Covid-19 rules, which McNeill is “dead against”, though he notes that some self-employed barbers who did not qualify for pandemic supports would have had no income otherwise.
McNeil was able to avail of government grants, but even so he and his partner – who is also self-employed – had to spend much of the deposit they’d saved to buy a house to keep the businesses going.
“That’s why I wanted to get back and hit the ground running, and it’s also about diversifying, not putting all your eggs in one basket.”
McNeil anticipates more barbers will now go out on their own as they realise it is better to work for themselves than to hire a chair in someone’s shop, or leave the industry entirely.
What he would like to see in the future is clarity from government – and, if possible, a commitment to no more lockdowns.
“Everybody would be a lot more comfortable when the weather starts turning again if you didn’t have to be wondering, could we go back into this again?”