Jen Ortiz has styled hair professionally in Providence for more than twenty years. She started right out of high school, studying at the vocational program, then part of Central High School. 

Her shop, Executive Cuts is on a quiet side street a few blocks from City Hall, between the typically busy thoroughfares of Westminster and Dorrance Streets. 

During her time downtown she’s steadily amassed a roster of hundreds of clients, mostly men working in the offices and city buildings nearby, who know her for her reputation of getting people in and out of the chair, with good cut, in fifteen minutes.

“Pre-COVID I was able to do four people an hour,” Ortiz said in an interview Wednesday. “In my heyday I was able to bang out over forty haircuts a day. So it’s a big difference from back then to after COVID.”

During the initial shutdown in the spring, Ortiz closed Executive Cuts for nine weeks, per the state restrictions. She estimates she lost thousands of dollars in pay. Her husband, a general contractor who works inside private homes also found himself unemployed and at home, with their twelve-year old son. 

The family made it through the lockdown thanks to the supplemental unemployment assistance and food stamps. But because she collected unemployment, Ortiz says, she was ineligible for the federal paycheck protection program or PPP. She applied for an emergency federal loan to pay for the necessary infrastructure to safely reopen. 

“[It] put me into a huge debt,” Ortiz said. “But it helped me have the cash flow, and be able to buy all the COVID supplies that I needed, the plastics, the sanitizing things, it was a lot. The money had to come from somewhere.”

Now, she has a new sink and handwashing station, washer and dryer, and plenty of personal protective equipment. She’s also facing down a new debt next year of more than 20-thousand dollars. And since Ortiz reopened in the summer, the steady clientele has slowed to a trickle.

“Today I did five people and my last one cancelled,” Ortiz said Wednesday. “We’re struggling.”

The city’s center has been quiet since the start of the pandemic. Businesses are working remotely, government buildings are offering only limited in-person services. 

Ortiz does not doubt the necessity of taking precautions, or even shutting down businesses to stem the spread of COVID-19. She, her husband, and her son all have asthma. They share their Providence home with her mother. Ortiz has spent time and money to keep her business clean, and has refused hundreds of dollars worth of offers to cut hair in private homes. 

Still, she and her family all ended up contracting the virus a few weeks ago, after close contact with her mother who also tested positive.

All of her family members have since recovered. Ortiz is proud to say that none of her clients contracted the virus. Proof, she feels, that she has followed protocols properly. But telling her clients that she had the virus has proven to be yet another way she’s losing income.

“I survived it, that’s what it feels like,” Ortiz said. “But then, along with that comes the stigma. I have clients that now don’t want to come back to me. They’re still scared to come back to me.” 

Ortiz received $5,000 from the state as part of the Restore RI grants program, which she plans to use for rent. To date, the state provided nearly $29-million to more than 2300 businesses, according to a spokesperson for the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation which oversees the grant program.

For Ortiz, the money will get her to the end of the year. She estimates it’s about forty percent of the money she lost in the initial shutdown, and doesn’t recoup the losses she accrued in the weeks since. 

With COVID-19 cases continuing to climb Governor Gina Raimondo announced new orders Thursday to begin at the end of the month. Raimondo held off on new restrictions for hair salons and other personal-care businesses. But if the number of COVID-19 cases doesn’t abate, Raimondo said another lockdown could follow.

If that happens, Ortiz says could very well lose the business. 

“If she shuts us down again, without giving us anything, definitely,” Ortiz said. She’s one of a coalition of small business owners, who’ve publicly asked the governor to release more money to support shops like hers. 

The governor Thursday said additional assistance for small businesses will be announced soon. But it’s not clear what that will be.

Sitting on a couch at the back of her shop, Ortiz worried about the days ahead. Christmas is usually one of the busiest times of year for hairdressers, and one of the most lucrative for tips.

She wore a blue sweatshirt, with a cartoon superhero emblazoned on the front. Ortiz bought the hoodie as part of a fundraiser for the daughter of a friend of a friend, who just lost her fight with terminal illness.

“I just got the text that she died this morning; thirteen years old,” Ortiz said.

“I have a son that’s almost thirteen. Everything else doesn’t matter. I’m happy that my son made it through COVID because of his asthma, I was scared.

“If my business survives it survives, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t but we survived COVID already. And if I have to go work somewhere else then I’ll be another casualty.”