Part 2: Massage Therapists Share Stories of Challenge & Hope

This is part two of our series demonstrating how massage therapists are meeting the challenges of COVID-19, including pausing their practices, reopening with new sanitation and safety protocols, or waiting to resume business.

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 necessitated these measures beginning in March 2020. While some states are reopening businesses, including massage, others aren’t allowing practice yet.

We interviewed dozens of massage therapists, bodywork practitioners, educators and business owners across the U.S. to find out how COVID-19 has affected this field on a personal and professional level.

These essays provide a snapshot of the massage industry, including fears, hopes and plans for the future, during this challenging time.

“I just would like to be able to be that person to help someone who may be experiencing loss on many levels.”

- Tammy Grimes

My experience with COVID-19 may be a little bit different than other therapists. I was in the transition of working a sub-contractor position to opening up my own full-time mobile massage practice in 2020.

I found out my 29-year-old son, Cody, had terminal cancer and his health declined rapidly. I could only work minimal hours to take care of him. He passed away on January 27, 2020. Fast forward to March. I have been totally numb to everything up to and including the coronavirus pandemic and returning to work.

My biggest challenge has been, by far, losing my child to cancer. The loss is unimaginable. The uncertainty of when I can and will be able to return to work is also hard. When the time comes and I feel I am ready I will return to doing my mobile massage practice.

I believe it will be hard on everyone to return to some kind of normalcy mentally. Just to be able to trust, to go out and to be around others and not be fearful will be huge.

I just would like to be able to be that person to help someone who may be experiencing loss on many levels. I would like to be able to return to my life’s work My passion. My heart.

Tammy Grimes, LMT
Years in massage: 13
Independent practitioner
Fairfield, Ohio

“We have created a virtual massage studio.”

- Amber Briggle

It’s hard to know what comes next when the only thing you sell is physical touch. We don’t have any retail we can promote or sell during this temporary closure, so trying to find a way to pay the bills while we’re not making any revenue is a huge challenge.

I have worked my entire adult life on building this business, and up until the day we closed, we were booked solid and had a waitlist. I didn’t make a bad financial decision, I didn’t break any ethical rules and I always made sure we had the very best customer service — so to have my business close so quickly, especially when I hadn’t done anything wrong to warrant this, felt completely disorienting and terrifying.

And personally, it’s been hard for me to understand my purpose without my work. I am a doer, and to now be at home where I can’t do anything has challenged me to explore myself at a deeper level. If I’m not a massage therapist or a business owner, who am I? I am still uncovering those answers and I don’t know what I’ll find on the other side of this.

Soma Massage Therapy has made a very unique pivot during this time. Because we can’t provide curbside or delivery service like a lot of restaurants and retail, and because we didn’t have any merchandise to sell, we’ve had to really think outside the box.

We created a virtual massage studio. People can sign up for $25 per month and get complete access to all of our self-care videos online. I shoot the videos at home, sometimes by myself and sometime with the help of my family, and cover topics such as self-massage, massage with a partner, stretches, relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, tips on topical pain management such as ice versus heat, and essential oils.

I release about three videos per week, and it’s been a great way to not only keep us top of mind within the community, but also has given us a global reach. Everyone around the world is experiencing this pandemic, and we all could use a little more TLC. These videos will help us pay the bills while we are closed and give the global community a way to care for themselves when it feels like everything outside their door is outside their control.

I anticipate a surge of clients when we do reopen, because people are stressed, they know how clean our facility already is, and so many people have been hurting for so long they’ll be desperate for some relief. But as the economic crisis lingers on, I suspect we will not see as many clients as we had seen in just the days and weeks prior to our closure. It will likely take a year or more before we regain our momentum again.

Amber Briggle
Years in massage: 16
Owner, Soma Massage Therapy
Denton, Texas

“I’m hopeful and focused for the future and that we are realized as essential to people’s health and well-being.”

- Robin Kirkorian

When I had to pause my practice, I felt emptiness and sadness. For me, massage has been so beneficial not only to my clients and patients, but to me. I find it adds calmness and purpose to my life. I feel awful that I cannot fill this void helping people during this really stressful time.

This is probably the time in everyone’s life where a massage would do the most good!

The stress on my oncology massage patients must be greater than before and it pains me that I cannot give them the 30-minute vacation from cancer they deserve to ease their minds.

My biggest challenge has been losing income. I’ve not been able to qualify for anything financially because I had just started a nonprofit for oncology massage called Hope Oncology Massage Inc. last December. I had been working on this since October 2019. I’ve been basically volunteering for months doing this work at a local cancer center in Worcester, Massachusetts, and planned a fundraiser to happen in March.

Well, March came, and no volunteering, no fundraiser, and no recouping any funds that I have put into my nonprofit to start it or get paid for my past work. I work one night at a spa but I don’t make enough there to collect unemployment. So I’ve basically lost one income in a two-income family. Being a single mom, it certainly is a challenge but I am grateful myself and my family are healthy.

While waiting to reopen, I’m researching and waiting for groups like S4OM and ABMP to put out standards. There are some really good bodywork groups on Facebook. I’ll be putting together a proposal on opening to the hospital when we are cleared in Massachusetts to open again. I still post on my social media sites to try to be active and seen, but with the cancer center being closed to massage services, I’m not getting referrals.

I also found a Facebook group called “Massage, Health Practitioners and COVID-19” whose admin keeps to facts and science and is in control of the group so we can get the proper information about our future.

Until we have a handle on this virus with a vaccine or testing for everyone, I do not see it being anything close to what we were currently doing. In a spa environment, I don’t even see it would be possible unless there is filtration, you clean and change your clothes between each client, and wear PPE. This will take much longer in between clients.

I’m hopeful and focused for the future and that we are realized as essential to people’s health and well-being. The committed therapists will come back stronger than ever and hopefully will be even more appreciated and better in their massage practice.

Robin Kirkorian, LMT
Years in massage: 9
Owner, Hope Oncology Massage Inc.
Spencer, Massachusetts

“Our office is so much a part of the community in which we reside, but now we are relegated to the sidelines.”

- Douglas Nelson

When I realized I had to pause my practice, I experienced a confluence of factors, both internal and external. My staff was feeling uneasy about the unfolding situation, as was I. We live in a university town and when the university closed, we knew it was time to shutter the doors.

The most difficult decision was to furlough my staff. Many of my therapists and other employees have been with me for many years, several of them in the 15- to 20-year range. I agonized over the decision to have them file for unemployment or try to hang on for a few weeks.

After the first week, it became apparent that this was going to last longer than anyone anticipated. I knew there was talk of government programs, but I could not take the chance of waiting for something that might not materialize.

I did apply for the PPP, filling out all the paperwork the bank required. As of this writing, I have not heard whether it came through or not. The filing process was fairly streamlined, but for so long no one quite knew where the program was headed. Information changed each day, making decisions very difficult.

Personally, I am trying to look at this as a sabbatical. While I have many other duties, I am doing much more research and learning than I normally have time for. I continue to stay in touch with our clients and my staff. I have been offering self-care tips and informational emails to our clients. I have personally called many of our regular clients who might not have many people checking on them. It is important that they know we care and are thinking about them.

Right now, I am trying to envision what the future might hold. We will indeed ramp up our sanitation and client flow processes to increase safety. I imagine that client flow and waiting room logistics will change quite a bit, as we have a very busy practice with eight therapists working at once.

One of the most difficult aspects of this crisis is to have to sit on the sidelines, while many of our clients who are caregivers and health care providers are right in the middle of the struggle. We cannot be there to help, which is very difficult. Our office is so much a part of the community in which we reside, but now we are relegated to the sidelines. We want to serve by doing the work we love, but it is not possible to do that at present.

Douglas Nelson, LMT, BCTMB
Years in massage: 43
Owner, BodyWork Associates
Champaign, Illinois

“I had to replace fear with faith and positive energy.”

- Michelle Morris

To be honest, I felt fear when I had to pause practice. I wasn’t sure how much money I had or what the timeframe was. I was concerned for my well-being as well as the health of others.

My biggest challenge has been maintaining a positive mindset. This situation is scary and I am struggling to be optimistic. I feel the small business wasn’t included in the conversation. Every time I tell myself everything is going to work out and just stay positive, another setback happens. SBA loans have been so hard to get and that’s very frightening being self-employed.

Right now I am dealing with the lapse of funding. It’s been a real nightmare trying to get any answers at all. But I am hopeful that something positive will happen.

I am taking a few classes online that are keeping my mind focused on learning something new. Both massage-related and personal development-related. I feel it’s going to be longer than a few months for things to return to normal. What that new normal looks like is still a mystery.

I am very hopeful that massage therapy, will continue to help and enhance the lives of as many people as possible. I also had to replace fear with faith and positive energy.

I believe that when you live with gratitude it helps you maintain balance. I am just really thankful for family, friendships and all the things I sometimes have taken for granted. What I know for sure is, we must all work together and follow the CDC guidelines. As a massage therapist washing my hands is nothing new.

Michelle Morris, CMT
Years in massage: 9
Owner, The Corporate Chair LLC
Stevenson Ranch, California

“We’re getting all of our staff members certified in spa sanitation.”

- Felicia Brown

When I realized I had to pause my business, initially, we just upped our client screening and sanitation practices while keeping an eye on what was going on. Then, on March 8, while I was away to teach at a conference, the International Esthetics, Cosmetics & Spa Conference in New York, a state of emergency was declared by New York’s governor and the conference was cancelled. That was when I knew things were more serious than I’d originally believed.

After returning home and “self-cocooning” for a few days, I began to see the potentially negative impact of providing massage and possibly unknowingly spreading COVID-19 to our staff, clients and community at this time was much greater than I’d realized. For several days, I read as much as I could about the disease, and consulted with my leadership team and other advisors about what to do. Finally, on March 17, I made the decision to close by the end of business that day.

The hardest thing, initially, was deciding to close before it was mandated and before anyone else in our area had. Sometimes being a leader sucks — but I knew it was the right thing to do, not just for our team and clients but to set an example I hoped others in our area would follow. It was really difficult to know I was taking money out of my staff members’ pockets, and my own, but I have no regrets at all.

Since then, I have faced a roller coaster of emotions on most days. In the span of five minutes, I can go from completely calm and productive to a weeping, paralyzed mess — and sometimes back again. The back and forth has made it difficult to stay focused. However, I have found that doing things to help others, especially the amazing group of people that work at A to Zen, helps me get through.

During the week, I stay connected to my wellness spa’s staff by sending out a daily email with updates, resources and ideas for how to get through this time. We’re getting all of our staff members certified in spa sanitation with two online courses from the manufacturers of Barbicide and Rejuvenate.

I am also researching how to safely re-open by reading what other businesses are doing as well as guidelines set forth by various state boards, professional organizations and leaders. I have ordered a few things such as sanitizable table covers and air purifiers for each treatment room and expect I will continue to look for tools and products of this type.

I see massage as being extremely clinical from the standpoint of having to employ masks, gloves and face shields in the short term, which deeply hurts my heart. Just the directive of keeping conversation and client interaction very limited before, during and after the session is such a different concept than the way my personal practice and spa are set up.

I honestly don’t know if I will find it personally rewarding enough to see my clients in the new format unless we hang out in the parking lot for a six-feet-apart conversation and connection before and after.

Despite the difficulties I and many others are facing on all levels, this is also a beautiful time. People are connecting on new levels, even while being separated. Creativity is exploding. Nature is getting a chance to flourish. The sky is brighter. And Earth is resting. I am grateful to be able to spend some of this time resting as well and look forward to a slower pace of life when we return to the new normal.

Felicia Brown, LMBT
Years in massage: 26
Spa owner, consultant, A to Zen Massage
Greensboro, North Carolina

“We feel best when we feel balance, and for many balance doesn’t exist right now.”

- Shane Evans

Massage Heights is an international franchise with 135 Retreats in the United States and Canada. Our franchisees employ nearly 5,000 people and we take care of millions of guests who need us every year.

When the COVID-19 crisis developed, my immediate thought was that the safety of our teams and guests is our number-one priority, and we knew that taking the necessary measures, whether mandated by the government or by volunteering to close, to protect everyone was necessary to do our part in minimizing the spread.

I also thought about the hardship that both the franchisees and the therapists of those locations might face financially and the impact that would have on them and their families in the short and long term.

Luckily, because we employ our teams, they are eligible for unemployment benefits, so the team members are taken care of if the franchisees are not able to continue to keep them on payroll for the duration. Regardless, it’s a stressful time for all parties and I believe we’ve done a good job to take care of our teams throughout all of this, communicating regularly, offering complimentary training, etc.

I think we’ve all faced challenges in some way, shape or form, from financial hardship to mental health, and many parents are trying to juggle their own fears while helping their children with schoolwork while managing work from home. We feel best when we feel balance, and for many balance doesn’t exist right now.

We have created very detailed sanitation protocols and training programs that support the new normal as we prepare to re-open. We are hosting nearly daily calls for our management teams; retreat directors, lead therapists and any team member who has the ability to join and learn. In addition, we have enhanced our marketing messaging to our team members and guests to communicate our high level of standards to protect their safety.

We’ve offered complimentary CEs to any team member who would like to take them to continue to improve their practice even while not actively working.

We believe that elevated sanitation standards will stick for the long term. Team members need to feel confident that their work environment is safe and that our clients feel and are safe as well.

Expectations for high-level service will be more prevalent than they are today and those businesses that don’t provide consistent elevated standards, cleanliness and professionalism will be at a greater risk for permanent closure of their businesses.

Shane Evans
Years in massage field: 16
Founder and CEO, Massage Heights
San Antonio, Texas

“I’m planning to go back to a simple single-practitioner office, but I have no idea when it will be possible to open.”

- Liz Yerkes

I paused practice in early March. Money is my main concern, followed by worry of myself or family members contracting the virus. It’s inconvenient not being able to grocery shop, or visit my mother, who lives in independent living nearby. They are not letting family members enter the building, which I understand.

I am working with my landlord to try to transition to a smaller space. I cannot afford to keep my office manager, so my independent contractors will need to find jobs elsewhere. I’m planning to go back to a simple single-practitioner office, but I have no idea when it will be possible to open. I can use the summer to sell furnishings, pack up and move somewhere else.

In the future I’ll see many less clients a day. Masks, change shirts between each client, wipe down everything a client may have touched while in the office. Get rid of anything that isn’t essential. I plan to, with their permission, take clients’ temperatures prior to working on them.

This pandemic has ruined the lives of so many people, in such a variety of ways. My heart breaks for the families who have lost love ones, and I have such honor and respect for the medical staff and first responders who risk their lives daily, often with poor or no equipment.

Liz Yerkes, LMT
Years in massage: 31
Owner, Longboat Massage
Longboat Key, Florida

“What can we learn from the last ‘worst financial crisis in history?’”

- Til Luchau

As I write this, COVID-19 has people in the USA beginning a process of social distancing of unknown duration, with estimates currently ranging from three weeks up to a year. Most massage therapists and bodyworkers have stopped seeing clients for now, and while some see it as a welcome break, many are concerned, anxious or fearful about the future of their practices.

By the time you read this, you’ll know more than we do now about how this is playing out. How long will this go on? Will clients want (or be able) to come back for hands-on work? How will I cover my expenses in the meantime? How will this affect the longer-term demand for what we do?

Though the current challenges facing massage and hands-on practices are unique, past crises and difficulties, such as the 2008 financial crisis, have shown us a few things that might apply. After the 2008 financial crisis (arguably, “the worst in global history, surpassing even the Great Depression,” according to Ben Bernanke, the former head of the U.S. Federal Reserve), we saw that:

• Many practitioners will need to find alternate sources of income, at least in the interim. There’s evidence that they’ll be happier with their practices as a result.

You’d think that massage therapists who took second jobs would be less happy with the size of their massage practices, but it’s actually the other way around, according to a large-scale survey of massage therapists in 2014 that showed that practitioners who had a second source of income were significantly more satisfied with both the size and quality of their practices overall when compared to those whose practices were their only source of income.

• Some practitioners will not return to hands-on work, but most will: those with adaptability, determination and a focus on excellence.

A repeated lesson from crises and shock is that the practices and employers that survive, and the field as a whole, will be stronger, more resilient and more focused as a result of this painful but fruitful pruning.

• Some clients will stop coming simply because they can’t afford to. Most will be back, and new clients will come.  Even the clients who need to stop will eventually return — they know the value of what you do, and will work it into their lives as soon as they can. One of my clients, a successful real estate agent before the 2008 mortgage crisis, waited tables for a year after losing her own savings and 100% of her clients within two months.

She bartered administrative help for occasional sessions with me for a year or two, but was back as a regular client as soon as her finances turned. Be flexible with your clients, and they’ll reward you with their loyalty.

It’s easy to forget that the most recent “epidemic” people were complaining about was the disease of overbusyness: no time to catch up, rest, reflect, connect or plan. Now that the busyness pendulum is in motion, keep caring for your body, your skills, your relationships and your spirit. Be patient, determined, adaptable. We’ll all be much stronger and better as a result.

Til Luchau

Owner, educator, Advanced-Trainings
Years in bodywork: 37
Boulder, Colorado

“My coworkers and I had to get extremely creative in coming up with a way to continue to teach the techniques of massage.”

- Rae McLaughlin

Rae – When we paused live classes, as a massage therapy educator my first thought was “How in the world are we going to make this work?” Massage being such a hands-on skill, it was hard to try to wrap my head around how to teach from a distance while keeping my students safe. 

Sharon – “What?!?!?!?, How!?” It will require observation with all the senses but touch.

Bridget – I felt very disappointed and wondering how I would be able to do this online.

Derek – While I was confident in my team’s ability to transition to online education temporarily, I was concerned for how our students would receive the information, and how well they would allow themselves to learn a “hands-on” skill while being “hands-off.”

Rae – I’d say the second hardest challenge I’ve faced is trying to keep my students engaged and excited to learn. None of them signed up to attend online classes but that’s our only option. Some of them have lost their jobs, some have children at home that they now have to teach and take care of, some live alone and are still working and trying to deal with the current state of the world.

I decided pretty quickly that my online classes need to be consistent and as close to what they are used to as possible. This brings me to the biggest challenge I’ve faced: hands-on lab.

My coworkers and I had to get extremely creative in coming up with a way to continue to teach the techniques of massage. After a lot of brainstorming and some trial and error we decided to customize the hands-on skills for each individual student. This approach gives you direct one-on-one time with the student and allows them to practice in areas that need more attention. It also keeps everyone on track and able to still graduate on time. Some days we will have a lab assignment that they have to research or draw their own opinions from.

Other days they record themselves performing a massage on someone in their home or on pillows and blankets. I know what you’re thinking: pillows and blankets are not the same as a real client. I 100% agree but sometimes you’ve just got to make the most of it.

When practicing on pillows and blankets students are surprisingly more focused on their technique and form. I think this is because they are not worried about potentially hurting someone or being critiqued by them. It’s almost as if they can let go of the “what ifs” and become more present with themselves. This isn’t true for every student, but for some it works.

After they send me their videos I watch them and take notes on what could be improved as well as what they did well. We go over any questions or concerns they may have had during the massage and address any areas they feel like they need more direction. Going over their lab videos and giving feedback has been one of the biggest things in my opinion to help them during this time of transition. They feel like they are still developing their skills while staying safe.

Sharon – Teaching massage requires observation with all the senses. Since we can’t touch, putting instructions for palpation, etc. into the most appropriate words has been a challenge.

Bridget – It’s a totally different classroom setting and I never expected to have to try to teach massage online. The curriculum that is not hands-on is able to be taught. I did have to teach deep tissue online and when my students get back on campus, we will be doing mostly hands-on lab. 

Derek – Keeping student morale up, while trying to deliver quality education, in an unprecedented, and uncharted manner, was a challenge.

Rae – Since we started working from home and moving all of our classes online it has challenged me in many ways. As an educator it’s easy to fall into the same routine of lecture and lab week after week. I’ve really taken the time to think of new and creative ways to present the curriculum. I’ve taken several continuing education classes online and have done a lot of brainstorming. I honestly feel that this whole experience is going to make us even better teachers. We were thrown in the deep end of online education without much training or time to adjust.

We’ve had to think on our toes and adapt to an environment that massage was never meant to be in. I’ve definitely gained more skills than I had before and feel more confident in my ability to overcome obstacles as they are presented. I could not have done it without the support of my amazing coworkers and the leaders at Clary Sage College. They truly made me feel supported and empowered throughout the entire process.

Sharon – I’m always doing CEUs, trying to work out assignments, etc., in the wee hours of the morning, keeping an eye/ear open for the most current news (with a grain of salt).

Bridget – I have taken the opportunity to get more CEUs done. I have mostly done CEUs for massage instructors to sharpen my teaching skills. 

Derek – I have been taking each opportunity as it comes, completing CEUs to develop myself, offering the purchase of gift cards to be redeemed when we re-open, offering online demos of things that can be done at home, such as self-massage for “tech-neck” and demos of retail products available.

Sharon – I think all of this situation will require a lot of flexibility in many areas. Waiting to see what is required to successfully move through each day.

Rae – Going forward, I think we will all have a little more appreciation for not only the traditional layout of the classroom but for each other as well. This whole experience has made everyone take a step back from our busy schedules and really evaluate what’s important to them. I think it’s also opened everyone’s eyes as to why sanitation and safety is so important. Previously to COVID-19, sanitation was something that was practiced but I don’t think clients really gave it a lot of thought. I believe our profession has always held sanitation and safety of our clients to a high standard, it will just be more in the spotlight going forward.

Bridget – For the classroom, I am always implementing sanitation and safety. For an example, when my students are massaging and they touch their hair, I will instruct them to use hand sanitizer. I think it will make the student more aware of why we do this.

Rae – As part of our job we feel that setting good examples and implementing good habits in school sets the stage for our students to be successful in the field. Even though this crisis has been challenging I believe our students are learning firsthand just how important sanitation, patience and perseverance are for massage therapists. 

Derek – I think we can see a silver lining from all of this: We have learned how to adjust to a new method of teaching, if ever needed again, and it is a great reminder of how important basic sanitation and hygiene are.

Rae McLaughlin, LMT, RYT-200 • Years in massage: 5

Sharon Lively, LMT, MS, NCBTMB, CPI

Bridget Brock, AOS, LMT

Derek Ball, AAS, LMT, FMT • Years in massage: 13

Massage Therapy Instructors, Clary Sage College
Tulsa, Oklahoma

Sharon Lively

Sharon Lively

Bridget Brock