An employee at Massage Envy in Short Pump demonstrates a custom mask designed for clients receiving facials and other skin care services.

As the Virginia General Assembly moves into the final stretches of a special session that’s lasted for more than six weeks, House and Senate lawmakers will meet to reconcile two different budget plans that, in some cases, propose significantly different funding for legislative priorities including police reform and child care. 

Buried amid the amendments, there’s another difference: language in the House version of the spending plan that would require revisions to the state’s Phase Three business guidelines to allow estheticians to temporarily remove a client’s face mask for services. 

The slightly unusual mandate can be traced to an unprecedented level of political advocacy by estheticians themselves: workers who specialize in cosmetic skin care. Under Virginia code, estheticians can provide facials, eyelash tinting, waxing and exfoliation, among other services. Master estheticians, a higher level of licensure, can also offer lymphatic drainage, chemical peels and microdermabrasion — a service that involves gently sanding away the outer layer of skin.

Amid a seemingly endless pandemic, they say the governor’s current business guidelines have essentially shut down an entire industry — the 3,625 estheticians and 1,615 master estheticians currently licensed in Virginia — with no clear end in sight. 

“The first word that comes to mind is devastating,” said Leigh Anne Puckett, the lead esthetician at two Massage Envy franchises in Henrico. The widespread dissatisfaction has led to months of discussion with state government officials, lobbying, and — in one case — a lawsuit.

“Historically, we haven’t had to engage at this level,” added Jason Seibel, who owns the two Massage Envy franchises where Puckett works. “This is the first time we’ve ever had to go out and essentially engage help so we can more effectively communicate.”

Like many personal care employees, Puckett said she and her colleagues spent months out of work after the governor shut down many non-essential businesses in late March. But as the state gradually reopened, they held out hope that Phase Three would allow them to resume their normal services.

“The original language that we submitted was to allow immediate facials,” added Laura Todd, who owns the Institute of Advanced Medical Aesthetics in Ashland and served as a representative on the governor’s COVID-19 Business Task Force. But when the final guidelines came out on July 1, many estheticians said they felt blindsided by the results. 

Currently, Virginians can get their hair cut at their preferred salon or barber shop as long as they’re wearing a mask. Tattoos are fine, too, as long as both artist and client have their faces covered. Massages, waxing, tanning — all the same. Masks, for both customers and employees, are an operative part of the governor’s current guidelines, which stipulate that personal care businesses “limit services to only those that can be completed without clients removing their face covering.”

“We were all very taken aback because we had the impression that during Phase Three, we would be back to work,” Puckett said. Since the guidelines came out, a group of major industry players — including the 42 Massage Envy franchises across the state and Hand and Stone, another massage and facial spa chain with locations in Virginia — has been petitioning the administration to ease restrictions around customer mask use.

To the industry, the negotiations have gone above and beyond normal safety protocols. Seibel said a work group submitted a full list of proposals to the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation that addressed everything from sanitation to mask use. 

“The state health team had opined that proximity and duration were a concern,” added Todd, who was also part of the industry work group. Since health officials were worried that estheticians would be closer than six feet to an unmasked client for more than 10 minutes, she said the group developed a quick mask-on, mask-off policy to limit the time of exposure. Seibel added that estheticians offered to wear N95 respirator masks under face shields (“Their concern was that they didn’t want everyone to use up N95 masks,” he said) and even submitted plans for a Plexiglass barrier to separate workers from their clients.

“It was kind of two months of that and we hit a brick wall,” he said. “No one was willing to budge.” Some estheticians have been offering modified services with specially developed masks that cover less of a client’s lower face. But the feedback has been less than favorable.

“There are many clients that are unhappy, I guess is the most diplomatic word I can use,” Puckett said. “I was outside the room when one of my clients was getting changed and putting on her little mask, and through the door I could hear her exclamation of, ‘Well this is f-ing stupid.’”

The administration holds that estheticians aren’t prevented from working under the current business guidelines. “Estheticians can perform any service they are licensed to provide so long as patrons do not remove their facial covering from their nose or mouth,” Northam’s spokeswoman, Alena Yarmosky, wrote in a Wednesday email. In other communications with the industry, state officials have highlighted that face shields and Plexiglass barriers aren’t considered acceptable substitutes for masks when it comes to what clients wear inside the businesses.

“At this time, it is not known what level of protection a face shield provides to people nearby from the spray of respiratory droplets or aerosols from the wearer,” Cassidy Rasnick, one of the state’s deputy secretaries for commerce and trade, wrote in a Sept. 8 letter to Del. Mark Sickles, D-Fairfax — a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee who helped the esthetician language make it into the budget. “It is also not known what level of protection a face shield provides to the wearer if people nearby are producing infectious aerosols.”

But estheticians and spa owners say most of the country — including New York and every state bordering Virginia — has managed to find a solution that allows employees to at least temporarily remove a client’s mask during facial services. And amid a reopening phase that’s stretched for the last three months, with no signs that the governor plans to ease restrictions, they’re worried about the future. 

About a week after Massage Envy reopened for facial services, Puckett said her normal client volume has dropped to less than half of what it was before the start of the pandemic. Overall, Seibel said he’s been lucky that the business has done better than other day spas that primarily offer skin services.

“The Red Door spa in Short Pump — they’re gone,” he said. “Multiple places are just gone now. They’re gone, or they’re breaking the law and doing it anyway.”

Seibel partnered with other businesses to hire the lobbying firm Lamar Consulting before the start of the special session. But there’s been division in the industry on the best approach. Todd opted not to hire a lobbyist and said she’s been focusing on submitting more information to the state as executive director of the Virginia State Association of Skin Care Professionals. That’s included a public petition to immediately allow unmasked facials.

Summer Layton, the owner of Sugar and Hive Beauty Bar in Henrico, opted for a lawsuit. Since the start of the pandemic, she said she’s lost about 80 percent of her business and revenues have plummeted since the start of the year, when the spa was on track to bring in more than a million dollars. She’s represented by Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, who’s fought the governor’s guidelines — unsuccessfully so far — on behalf of multiple business owners. 

A slew of other lawsuits have claimed that the governor’s guidelines are arbitrary. But estheticians, even those who chose not to sue the state, say it’s particularly galling to see dentists offering teeth whitening or dermatologists offering Botox to patients without a mask, which is currently allowed under state guidelines.

“I can’t weather another six months of this,” Layton said. “My perspective is, why are you targeting a female-dominated industry? Because if you break it down, the vast majority of estheticians are women and it’s mostly women who are receiving these services.”