ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA – Americans are losing work and filing for unemployment benefits at a record pace as companies large and small remain closed or operate at reduced capacity during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pain extends to small-business owners in the Washington area who had to let workers go when revenue dried up. Among them is Alexandria, Virginia, hairstylist Divo Le, who has embraced spending time at home with his 6-year-old twin daughters but speaks wistfully of his shuttered salon, where he once employed eight people.
“I love playing with the girls and helping them,” the 52 year-old said, “but I really want to go back to work.”
In March, Virginia joined other states in closing down nonessential businesses, including hair salons.
Left Vietnam as teen
COVID-19 has done what no other hardship Divo has faced ever could, forcing him to place his American dream on hold. As a 15-year-old, he left Vietnam with a friend to escape a poor village for what he hoped would be a brighter future, eight years after the end of the Vietnam War that devastated the country.
“I was naive,” he said, “and didn’t even tell my parents I was going. All I knew was that many people were departing Vietnam in hopes of reaching America and I wanted to go there, too.”
Divo took a boat to Thailand and was put in a refugee camp. Then, about a year later, he came to the Washington area, where he was welcomed by his American foster parents — “a good family” he said — who lived in suburban Virginia.
He began learning English, and instead of calling himself Phong, his first name, he took the nickname Divo, which everyone has since called him. He said he just liked how it sounded.
After high school, Divo became a hairstylist, working at salons in the Washington area for some 25 years.
Fast forward to five years ago, when he achieved his American dream by opening Salon Divo. It wasn’t easy to start his small business since he couldn’t get a bank loan. So, he and his wife, Dina, took all their savings, and put thousands of dollars on credit cards, to open the salon.
Divo Le helps his children with their schoolwork while his hair salon is closed. (Courtesy of Divo Le)
Now, Divo sits in a chair in his empty salon and ponders the future of his business, which has grown into both a hair and nail salon on two floors in a small brick building. He has two landlords.
“One of the landlords wants her money now and won’t wait, but the other is being more reasonable and said he can wait until the salon opens again, before we start making payments,” he said.
“We had set aside a little money in case something happened,” added Dina, who is also a stylist at the salon, “but it won’t last very long.”
“We’re like everyday Americans trying to make ends meet,” said Divo, as he mixes hair coloring for a customer who stopped by the shop. To bring in a little money, he is selling customized hair color kits his clients can buy and take home.
Divo Le prepares hair color for a client to take home. (Deborah Block/VOA)
“Divo and Dina are going through a really tough time right now,” said regular client Lori Luster, “and I want to make sure I can support them through these difficult circumstances. They’re kind of like my family and I’m going to help them as much as I can.”
Divo is grateful that “good-hearted” customers keep in touch with him by phone or text to let him know they will be back once the shop opens. He hated to furlough the eight people who worked for him and frequently checks on them to see how they are doing.
Hoping for loan
When the salon opens again and they return to work, he’s planning to pay them through the new U.S. government Paycheck Protection Program, designed to provide forgivable loans to small businesses that keep their employees on the payroll.
“We are still waiting to hear if we got the loan, which will help us a lot,” said Divo.
Soon there may be a light at the end of the tunnel for Salon Divo since Virginia’s governor plans to reopen certain businesses, including hair salons, on May 15. But they must have enhanced safety measures in place.
“At first, that may mean only having me in the shop with one client at a time since social distancing is not possible with a full staff,” he explained. “It’s going to be hard to get back up and running for a while, but I really believe in America, and that we will get through this because we have a good government that takes care of us.”