SANTA MONICA, Calif.—Michael Sparks has always been a go-getter. Though he was exposed to substance abuse growing up, he channeled the negative energy from his hardships into a drive to succeed.
He made his way to college on a football scholarship, but when that didn’t work out, he came up with a new dream and made it happen.
He put himself through cosmetology school in El Cajon, California. When he graduated in 2007, he set his sights high.
Sparks drove to Beverly Hills, walked into the salon of famed stylist Chris McMillan, and got himself hired as a part-time assistant.
“I’ve always wanted to be the best at what I do,” Sparks said. “I was determined to get hired.”
He eventually became assistant to McMillan himself, and started to develop his own celebrity clientele.
His partner, Kristina Tabb, is a colorist and she wanted to open a business with him. Sparks was hesitant.
“I know from experience how tough it can be, but I wanted to support my partner’s dream.” Together they took out a small business loan and invested $75,000 of savings to launch the Tabb & Sparks salon in October 2019.
Located on the high-rent street of Montana Ave. in Santa Monica, LA County, at first business was steady and growing. But just four months after opening, the United States was hit hard with COVID-19.
Though Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted restrictions on Jan. 25, and LA County allowed salons to reopen at 25 percent capacity, it’s been a hard go since March. And limited capacity still means limited income to make up for losses.
“I’m always worried,” Sparks said. “One person can literally tell us to stop working, without our consent. We either listen or get fined and possibly have our business license taken away. … I’m scared we could be shut down again.”
Sparks was first forced to close his new business on March 19, 2020, due to Newsom’s “stay-at-home” order.
He fully complied. “I didn’t work at all. I had savings and did off-the-wall stuff to make money.” For example, he sold artwork and personal belongings to bring some money in. “I didn’t even respond to text messages to work.”
In June 2020, after the number of COVID-19 cases in California subsided, salon businesses were able to reopen. Sparks invested around $10,000 to meet state guidelines and operated at less than 25 percent capacity.
“We followed orders to a tee,” Sparks said. “Our salon is cleaned by a professional cleaner, we have plexiglass up, we follow social distancing. We are not a threat.” However, rising virus cases forced him to close again in July.
To keep afloat, Sparks and Tabb applied for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan meant to help small businesses in the wake of mandated closures. They were initially denied funding.
But they fought back, ultimately receiving 25 percent of their requested amount. Sparks said the person who issued their loan was a volunteer and not a bank employee. “So we don’t even have qualified people handing out these loans,” he said.
“Our loan was initially meant for eight weeks but was stretched to last 24 weeks.” While a second round of PPP loans is currently available, Sparks said his salon no longer qualifies because it already received money in the first round.
In addition to the difficulty with the PPP loans, the business owner and father of three is frustrated by the lack of sufficient data backing salon closures.
“We are basing our livelihoods on zero data from Newsom,” Sparks said.
Another issue, he said, is the inconsistent categorization of hair salons.
Sparks said his salon was initially categorized with medical spas, because it has a license “for disinfectant and disease,” but in a subsequent shutdown was recategorized with restaurants.
“If they had stuck to their original categorization, we would have been open this whole time.”
In early September, in the wake of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) defying the state’s stay-at-home order by getting her hair done at a San Francisco salon without a mask, Sparks and a few local salons reopened their businesses. Shortly thereafter salons were officially allowed to reopen.
Sparks was forced to close yet again under a more recent Southern California stay-at-home order, which is now being extended.
When asked about taking the COVID-19 vaccine that is currently being rolled out in California, Sparks said he doesn’t plan to get it right away. “It’s just so new, I personally wouldn’t take it right now.”
In terms of the government’s overall response to the pandemic, Sparks said he’s concerned for people’s health, but the lockdowns went too far.
“On the whole, this virus is serious and people need to take it seriously, but this is not the first or last time this will happen. We can’t close down the whole economy.”
Even when allowed to open, Sparks said his business was significantly affected; it made only 25 percent of what it normally would.
Sparks said he averaged three clients per day where he normally would have had 10. He is also down to five hairdressers; he previously had 11.
“We are losing money across the board,” Sparks said, but he is determined to keep his business open. “Closures of small businesses equate to the American dream dying.”