Canada

Niagara-area barbershop is using film set exemption to reopen amid pandemic

A St. Catharine’s barbershop owner who created a production studio that also offers haircuts amid Ontario’s COVID-19 lockdown insists her business is “safe” and “sanitary.”

Alicia Hirter, owner of Chrome Artistic Barber, says her storefront now includes cameras, microphones and production lighting in a venture that offers “auditions” for a future podcast or documentary. The idea is to operate as a film or TV set, since those are exempt from Ontario’s lockdown rules.

Yet creative though her idea might be, her studio operation has caught the attention of regional health authorities, who say they are “monitoring” the situation.

Read more: Coronavirus: Ontario mother fined $880 for allegedly violating provincial stay-at-home order

In the hopes of keeping her business of 18 years alive, the entrepreneur says the pivot came around Christmas just before the province initiated a lockdown requiring non-essential businesses to shut down.

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Hirter tells Global News the idea came from one of her customers.

“It was one of our clients who said, ‘Hey, have you guys ever thought of mic-ing this place up?'”

After losing about 50 per cent of her regular customers during the first lockdown and with the prospect of losing more amid a second shutdown, Hirter decided to try out her client’s idea of having “candid,” on-camera conversations with her customers while giving them a trim.

“We’ve got a terabyte (of data) right now and we’re working through a program,” Hirter said.

“So, at the end of the night, we upload all our usable all our videos that the talent release was signed for.”

Hirter, a single mom, said the idea for the shift came after learning that television and movie sets were exempt from the province’s latest shutdown measures.

“When all of this happened and the second lockdown came about, I did realize that movie and filming film sets were exempt in the news and, you know, everyone else is getting their hair done to go on air.”

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According to Hirter, clients can book “auditions” for themselves or family members through an app or through the salon’s website. Upon arrival, the talent must sign a release form, undergo COVID-19 screening, and wash their hands.

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The cost is $37 for a one-hour adult audition and while the kid’s price is $27 for a 45-minute session.

“For the audition for an hour, we still find that’s fair,” Hirter said.

“I find it’s fair because someone gets to come in, they get to talk. They still get to take advantage of our regular service in trade for what we need them for.”

Read more: Niagara police identify victims in Fort Erie, Ont., double homicide

The studio’s business practices have caught the attention of both the city of St Catharines and Niagara Region public health, which say they are working with the province on an investigation.

“As the Province has declared a second State of Emergency in direct response to an alarming increase in COVID-19 cases, City By-law Enforcement along with Regional By-law Enforcement and Niagara Regional Police Service continue to enforce the Provincial Orders and Regulations to ensure community safety,” said Tami Kitay, director of planning and building services for St. Catharines.

“We appreciate that these are challenging times; however, businesses that do not comply with the Provincial Orders and Regulations will be investigated and can anticipate consequences.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Niagara Region says public health is also monitoring the situation.

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“Niagara Region is aware of this situation and has opened an active investigation,” said Niagara Region spokesperson Andrew Korchok.

“Our staff are working in close collaboration with our counterparts at the City of St. Catharines and other agencies to enforce the Provincial Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act and the Reopening Ontario Act in a consistent and fair manner.”

Read more: Ontario boards gear up to quickly reopen some schools as Ford government issues directive

Hirter says that after an initial inquiry by the city via a phone call, she’s since been visited by a provincial licensing officer who has twice asked her to close her operation.

“The tone was horrible,” Heretser said. “When she was speaking to me, she would interrupt me as soon as I started speaking.”

Ultimately, Hirter says she “stuck her neck out” for a reason and doesn’t regret making the stand to keep her and her son afloat financially.

“The outcome of support that I got from people across Ontario — business owners, people that were crying to me on the phone, yesterday — I’m beside myself with what’s happened,” she said.

“It’s worth it.”

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