LOS ANGELES, Calif.—When one Los Angeles nail salon owner was told she would have to close her business due to Covid-19, she feared it would be an economic death sentence. She had just climbed out of bankruptcy following the recession a decade ago and didn’t see how her business could weather another recession, let alone shutting down completely. So, she decided to break the law. Instead of closing shop, she’s been operating in secret for the past three months, painting nails in a darkened room and asking customers to park on adjacent streets so as not to draw attention.
Her salon is just one of many small businesses in Los Angeles who refused to close after the county’s mid-March “Safer at Home“ order directed all “non-essential” business to shut down in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The owners of these non-essential businesses—from personal trainers to dog groomers to tattooists—faced a tough choice: Abide by the order and face serious, if not irreparable, financial challenges to their livelihoods; or go underground, keep working and face potential fines and even criminal charges. So far, more than 1,000 complaints have been filed against non-essential businesses operating when they should be closed, and the L.A. city attorney announced 60 new charges against businesses operating secretly as recently as May 12.
Photographer Todd Bigelow traveled around Los Angeles photographing some of these entrepreneurs operating in secret, depicting what it’s like to run a shadow business in the era of Covid-19. They avoid obvious markers of an open business during lockdown. Prospective clients are told to use back doors, to park blocks away from the business and to text the owners when they arrive. Many only allow one client on-site at a time, both for safety and secrecy reasons. One even has a sign on his door saying his business is closed due to Covid-19, even though it‘s not. Other non-essential business owners understand that remaining in their shops or gyms would be too risky, so they avoid detection by going mobile—into homes, yards and parks, hoping to keep some income flowing.
On Friday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom allowed barbershops and salons in the state to reopen, meaning some of these business owners could start seeing customers legally as soon as this weekend. But L.A. County’s restrictions and safety standards for reopening are still higher than much of the rest of the state. And for the rest of those Bigelow spoke to, they say that until normality is fully restored, they’ll keep clawing to whatever business they can get. This is what the new Prohibition looks like.
Below, a tattoo artist keeps his parlor open in defiance of the city‘s shutdown order. With his lights off, curtains drawn and the general appearance of being closed, including bars over the doors, he works in his studio by appointment only. Still, he‘s lost more than half of his income and says he‘s only working so he can pay his bills.
While major chains like Petco and Petsmart can weather the Covid-19 closures by selling pet products online, small business groomers are in danger of going permanently out of business. One groomer kept operating by having clients text her when they would arrive in the alley behind her building. There, she would meet the owner at their car and quickly take the dog and bring it through a door that reads “closed due to coronavirus.”
Martial arts is a multi-billion dollar industry comprised mostly of small businesses. One Southern California Muay Thai instructor, who trained in Thailand and fought all over the world, was put out of business when his academy was one of many gyms and training centers forced to close as a result of L.A.’s Safer at Home order. He says that bills piling up and a commitment to his students led him to start offering his services on driveways and in backyards.
The aforementioned nail salon owner applied for the Paycheck Protection Program but says she only received $1,000, and she says she’s been unable to receive unemployment insurance while her salon has been ordered closed. She believes the “hype” over the virus is designed to bring down President Donald Trump and has continued to work six days a week behind a closed sign.
John, below, used to work as a trainer at a major fitness center chain before recently deciding to strike out on his own as a personal trainer. But when Los Angeles closed the gym he rents space from, he took a cooler full of dumbbells and other equipment to the park and has resumed seeing clients there.
Hair dressers earn notoriously low pay and face stiff labor competition, so when salons were ordered closed, one woman who normally works two jobs to make ends meet started making house calls. She says she wears a mask and gloves and disinfects everything she touches.
Vern, another trainer, below, owns several fitness centers in the Los Angeles area, having opened one only months before they were all shut down for Covid-19. Now he’s taken his work to the streets to continue seeing some clients.