As states start to reopen after COVID-related stay-at-home orders, Regis Corp. and Great Clips say they can be national leaders on how salons can operate safely for both customers and employees.

The Twin Cities-based companies had more than 11,000 salons in the U.S. and Canada before the pandemic hit.

"Essentially our entire portfolio was shut down" because of stay-at-home orders to control the spread of the coronavirus, said Eric Bakken, executive vice president and president of franchise operations at Regis.

As of Monday, Regis had about 125 salons open and Great Clips over 200.

Both Regis and Great Clips make the argument that because salons already were tasked with safety and hygiene regulations that they are in a good position to be leaders in opening up.

"Our industry has been practicing safety and sanitation within the salons forever. That is a wonderful platform to build off of as we look to reopen in this COVID world we live in," said Steve Hockett, CEO of Great Clips.

For sure, the salons will look different when they reopen, with lobbies restricted and some stations blocked off. Stylists and clients will be wearing masks. Some up-close services such as beard or eyebrow work won't be done right away.

Both companies have been working with their own experts as well as public health officials to create new procedures and protocols that would give stylists and clients confidence that salons could operate safely.

They both must work with franchisees. Great Clips' salons all are owned by franchisees, and Regis is working toward a franchisee model.

In Minnesota, where both companies are headquartered — Great Clips in Bloomington and Regis in St. Louis Park — Gov. Tim Walz's extension of the stay-at-home order allows retail sales of hair-care products or curbside delivery, but salons are still prevented from offering services.

Bakken has been leading a cross-functional team of 16 at Regis that includes 10 corporate staff members and six franchisees. Members have met two times a week to create new practices for operations and sanitation.

"What we were setting out to do is really build a world-class, industry-best reopening strategy," he said. "We all know that we are going to be reopening, and we wanted to take the time and figure out how we can adapt our business to operate in the new normal."

Regis has long had an affiliation with the University of Minnesota, and once Bakken's group had a working document for a customer's entire visit from parking lot to checkout, the members then brought in two infectious disease experts from the U and Dr. Doug Yee, director of the university's Masonic Cancer Center.

"They have been terrific to work with," Bakken said. "They came back with some really thoughtful stuff on how we can do things."

First and foremost, the group's conclusion involved people being honest about sickness. Neither stylists nor clients should come to an appointment if they are feeling ill.

Other new or enhanced protocols Regis has come up with include: stylists wearing eye protection as well as masks during shampoos; all clients will get fresh capes during their visit; and there will be extra education on proper hand-washing and sanitation.

Regis also will schedule appointments through its online check-in or through Facebook and Amazon's Alexa technology. With some stations being blocked off, salons might extend hours to recapture lost volume.

At Great Clips, nearly half of their customers already use the company's online check-in app or website to schedule visits. Hockett said that his teams are working to tweak that technology to help manage salon traffic even more.

Pre-shutdown, Great Clips had been working on a streak of 56 consecutive quarters of same-salon sales growth. That streak ended, inevitable when open salons went from 4,501 to 17 by the end of March.

The salons in Utah and one on a military base in Texas remained open.

"Even though the first two months were really solid, you can't make up for that size drop," Hockett said.

In solidarity with the Great Clips franchisees and more than 40,000 stylists left unemployed during the stay-at-home orders, Hockett pledged not to have his hair cut until the 1,000th Great Clips salon reopens.

"I'm trying to live it with the franchisees," Hockett said. "They are small-business owners. Rightfully so they are concerned, frustrated, scared."

Great Clips has salons in 47 states and had planned on opening salons in the remaining three by the end of 2020.

"We will open in the three remaining states, which are Louisiana, Maine and Vermont, this year. Providing that we can and when the orders are lifted — we have leases signed in all three of those," Hockett said.

Regis had a stated goal to convert to a 100% franchise system by the end of 2020.

"We are still going to get it done. We have a really robust pipeline in place," Bakken said. "But with everything that is going on, it's going to make it more challenging to get everything done in that time frame."