Part 3: Massage Therapists Share ​Stories of Challenge & Hope

This is part three 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 have always believed I would retire in this business — when I was ready.”

- ​​​Dana Briley

When I realized I had to pause my massage practice, I felt very afraid of loss of income. I have not seen a client since March 15. I’m still responsible for a great deal of debt. And my mother has stage-4 lung cancer. I can’t see her.

I have been in my business for over 20 years. I have always believed I would retire in this business — when I was ready. I am now looking at other ways to make a living that don’t involve personal contact.

I am opening slowly with patients booked hours apart for cleaning in-between. I would prefer not to open at all, but with no assistance, I have no choice.

I feel like our state government is forcing professional people who run independent business to expose themselves to this virus before it’s safe. Most of these chosen professions do not pay into the unemployment system. Governor Kemp is making sure the state no longer has to pay assistance. It’s all about money, not the health and well-being of the people of this state.

Dana Briley, LMT
Years in massage: 22
Owner, Highlands Healing Hands
Atlanta, Georgia

“I felt devastated and, at the same time, morally sound in our decision to close. I feel on a daily basis fear, anxiety and worry.”

- ​​​Tess Falk

My husband, Abiola, and I own a massage practice in Orlando, Florida. We are a small boutique practice and we are the only practitioners. We had been following the news of this rapidly spreading virus and kept saying to each other by early February, “If this heads to America we are going to have to close and we need to do it before the state tells us to.”

We stated discussing the possibility of closing with our clients as they came in for treatments all through February. We hung signs in our studio mid-February with new guidelines for cancelling, safety procedures and new implementations to try and keep us all safe. On March 15, we worked our last full day. We made the decision to close our doors March 16. Florida did not issue a stay-at-home order until April 9. 

This was one of the hardest decisions my husband and I have ever had to make. Facing a reality of “Do harm by staying open?” or “Close the business we have spent our marriage building together.” 

I felt devastated and, at the same time, morally sound in our decision to close. I feel on a daily basis fear, anxiety and worry. Will we have a career to come back to? I know we helped other massage business owners in our community make this difficult decision, and for that I feel proud and communally helpful. I also feel we are all in this together, and sacrifices must be made for the greater good right now.

Personally, I have experienced a tremendous amount of anxiety. I worry about all of humanity. I take comfort in knowing the entire world is experiencing this together, however, not all similarly. I feel helpless trying to make the correct decisions for my family and our livelihood. I am grateful; for the time being we have enough to get by. We haven’t received any stimulus checks, no loans, nothing. We are on our own, and this is scary with both my husband and I being in this profession with no other degrees to rely on. 

Professionally I have never worked so hard for so little income, but I feel in gratitude that I can support and help clients and humanity in general from afar. The scheduling is the most difficult part. I have stopped rescheduling clients and have started a list of people to contact once we can safely open. And opening will happen in stages for us. I just keep telling myself and my clients, “We’re in this together. One day at a time.”

We have taken this time to completely reconfigure our scheduling and communication systems. For years I have run this practice manually. With this new era, and needing to be available more digitally, we are updating and improving our website and using it as a communication platform.

We are changing our hours, the length of time between services, and cleaning procedures. We are making sure that we are never starting and stopping services at the same time so we only have one client and practitioner in the lobby. This allows deep cleaning of the restroom before and after any client.

We are adding HEPA filters to our massage rooms at our small studio. We are also adding two new services to our menu: virtual self-care sessions and outdoor/in-home medical massage.

We anticipate some clients will be hypersensitive and may need more levels of precautions taken, based on their health conditions. We want to be able to safely treat these clients in a more ventilated space. We will additionally require all clients to wear face coverings while in our studio and receiving massage. 

I know we will have to decrease our volume of practice tremendously to accommodate all the new protocols we are integrating for human distancing and cleaning protocol. I anticipate a major decrease in demand as well. We are unsure of how many of our clients will be financially impacted and budgets, just as ours, will need to be adjusted.

We are also nervous for our elderly and sick clients. We always put the philosophy “do no harm” at the forefront of our practice, and now is a time where massage could be harmful.

We will bob and weave to adapt for the needs of our clients and all of our safety. Massage is non-essential … until it’s essential. Pain is real and affects everyone differently. Our goal is to safely treat and keep people out of the hospital system if possible.

I am humanitarian through and through. I am not a politically, money or materials-driven person. I am hopeful that this will help humanity realize money isn’t everything, people are. This is a time to help our fellow humans however we can.

Being a hero today is choosing to stay home and lose time and money. But we are all in this together. One day at a time, we can build a better, kinder, safer, more balanced world. 

Tess Falk, LMT, CKTP
Years in massage: 10
Owner, @Peace Massage & Bodywork
Winter Park, Florida

“Non-contact and energy work will be even more appreciated.”

- ​​​​Carrie Ann Wiedemann

The biggest challenges in my personal or professional life related to COVID-19? Trying to keep up with the ever-changing amount of information that comes out daily. Recognizing this too shall pass and that our world has gone through many difficult times throughout history.

My work has required developing new sanitation guidelines to meet the needs of many state requirements as well as identifying clients’ comfort levels and giving assurance of safety for all.

I personally believe the time has come for my personal practice to develop even more holistically. I am a yoga and somatic movement instructor and believe the idea of non-contact or energy work will be even more accepted. I see those types of healing modalities to meet the comfort needs of individuals who don’t want to be touched, yet need a place to restore and rest.

Years ago, people thought going somewhere to meditate with a group sounded strange. Maybe now people will gravitate to a safe space to get a vibration lift and come away feeling much better.

I am a follower of Edgar Cayce and was taught a lot of his modalities for health and healing. A truth-filled statement of his was, “Spirit is the Life, Mind is the Builder, and Physical is the Result.”

Carrie Ann Wiedemann, LMT, BCTMB, MLD, CPDT
Years in massage: 28
National Massage Training & Compliance Coordinator
Hand and Stone Franchise Corp.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

“Touch was our very first sense to develop and it is, and always will be, vital in this age of sympathetic nervous system overload.”

- ​​​​Erik Dalton

My wife, Teri, and I had returned from a nine-week vacation at our Costa Rica home and just as I was beginning to get back into my routine of seeing clients the COVID-19 outbreak was announced. My biggest concern was having to contact all my clients who’d been waiting for me to return and tell them there was going to be a longer delay due to the lockdown.

Since I primarily treat pain and injury conditions, those calls were much more difficult than expected. Fortunately, I chose to call clients directly instead of by email or text, and during those discussions I realized that some just needed reassurance that they would be OK.

In some cases, I arranged weekly FaceTime calls to talk about their condition, make sure they were following their home exercise advice, and basically to just let them know I was there for them. It always amazes me how a client’s stress level can be down-regulated via a friendly empathetic conversation. It not only helps temporarily calm their “fear-centered” amygdala, it also forges a stronger bond that enhances their future therapeutic goals.

My biggest challenge was trying to figure out what to do about all the therapists enrolled in Myoskeletal Alignment Techniques workshops and what advice to offer my other six teachers about rebooking their upcoming events. In April, my staff and I were scheduled to teach our 21st Annual Pain Management in Paradise Costa Rica Retreat and then on July 4 weekend, Whitney Lowe was joining me for our 6th Annual Oklahoma City three-day workshop.

Uncertainty really fires up the brain’s fear and stress centers and at the time of the lockdown, no one really knew how long this thing was going to last. Fortunately, a “play it safe and postpone” decision was made so we were able to move the July 4 participants to Labor Day and the Costa Rica therapists to November.

On a personal note, I’ve found Facebook to be very helpful in keeping in touch with other therapists and educators and, of course, exercise and outdoor activities have absolutely been the best therapy for me in these times of uncertainty. My two doggies, Betty and Brody, aren’t exactly sure what’s going on. In the beginning, they loved having Teri and I around all the time, but lately you can see them go run and hide when we bring out their leashes. That look on their face tells the whole story… “enough already with the walking!”

I’m an eternal optimist, so I’m really not the best person to be offering advice on when and how to reopen. I think that’s a personal decision partly dependent on your country, state and city, and your personal health and hygiene. Of course, I realize it’s easier to be an optimist when you still have income coming in. I’m fortunate to have 10 eLearning and home-study courses available for therapists stuck at home and wanting to upgrade their skills, and I’m confident my clients will all be ready when I give them the green light.

Like many of you, my biggest problem has been what to do with my fidgety hands. My mom’s classic line growing up was “Erik isn’t happy if his hands aren’t busy.” To keep me from constantly “digging” on her, Teri let me bring my drums up from the basement to the kitchen and that’s helped a bunch.

This year, I’m celebrating my 40th year as a full-time bodywork practitioner, so I’ve experienced a lot of crazy stuff that I thought would have life-altering consequences on my practice. Most of the things I feared most never happened. In my opinion, people will always need and seek touch therapy.

Touch was our very first sense to develop and it is, and always will be, vital in this age of sympathetic nervous system overload. My advice is simple: Keep the faith, enhance your skills, and pull up that mask and give everyone you meet a big smile.

In times of distress, I try and heed the words of a very wise man, Mark Twain, when he said: “I have spent most of my time worrying about things that have never happened. Worrying is not an action! In fact, it is action that alleviates concern and dissipates worries. Take more actions when you feel that worry is creeping in to steal your time. It need not be a huge action, any action in the direction you want to go will do.”

Erik Dalton, PhD, LMT
Years in massage: 40
Owner, educator, Freedom From Pain Institute
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

“Not being able to have physical contact with people can be difficult, especially for massage therapists … touch is our language in many ways.”

- ​​​​​Laura Ellerbe

We felt a lot of emotions, lots of uncertainty as well, about closing. First of all, we felt it was necessary for the well-being of our clients. I have many at-risk clients: people over the age of 60, people with cancer or caregivers of loved ones with cancer, and people in the health profession. So there was no question in my mind that we had to close temporarily. We spend our working hours caring for our clients, and would never do anything to put them at risk. The uncertainty comes from not knowing how long it will last, when will it actually be safe to re-open. How can we survive financially and professionally?

I believe being isolated has an emotional toll; I feel loneliness and worry about the future. Touch is often underrated, and I believe it affects so many people. Not being able to have physical contact with people can be difficult, especially for massage therapists … touch is our language in many ways. All day we’d touch people and make a positive impact on clients’ physical and emotional well-being. It was meaningful not only to clients, but to us therapists. To not be able to continue doing that is heartbreaking and hard to deal with.

Becoming more specialized was a huge goal of mine for 2020. I wanted to become a CLT — Certified Lymphedema Therapist — and also specialize in MLD. I took out micro loans in the beginning of the year to take the necessary training, as they are expensive. Two of my classes were postponed, but I plan on continuing once we are able to do so.

About re-opening, I’m mixed. I’m excited to see clients again, but I will not open until I’m certain it’s safe for us to do so. Savings will run out soon, but our entire mission for eight-plus years has been to make a positive impact on people’s health and wellness. No amount of money is worth putting the lives of our clients or community’s lives at risk.

We entered this profession to spend our working lives helping others. I’m sure we should take additional precautions, perhaps wear PPE now. It will feel different, but I’m sure we will accept it as the new normal.

Laura Ellerbe, LMT
Years in massage: 8
Owner, Healing Kneads Massage
Lake Mary, Florida

“All of this confusion and controversy literally makes my heart hurt.”

- ​​​​​Tracy Klein

I work for a busy chiropractic office in Michigan with three chiropractors and one other massage therapist. Gretchen Whitmer, our governor, started putting restrictions on schools in our state on March 13.

I am a single mom with two young daughters, so this is when things started to get real. At this point, however, I was still thinking that the virus was blown out of proportion. I did some research and compared COVID-19’s numbers with the flu and at that time, the flu seemed much worse, so I continued to work and thought maybe things would be better in a couple of weeks.

About a week later the governor put several more restrictions in place. People were supposed to “Stay Home and Stay Safe,” masks were highly suggested and only essential workers were supposed to be working. I thought for sure that I would be laid off, but my boss told me that the essential-worker order was open to interpretation for chiropractors so they were choosing to stay open. They told me I could continue to work because I work under the chiropractor’s license and our office was considered a medical facility.

At this point I was feeling uneasy. All of it was so unreal.

Two weeks earlier I was busy and doing great and then suddenly not only was I afraid of losing my job, I was afraid for my patients’ health, my health and the health of my daughters. I soon began to realize that by working I was putting my patients in an awkward position. All of them love getting massages but many of my long-time regulars told me they almost canceled their appointment but decided against it because they felt bad for me. (They knew I was a single mom that needed income.)

I was very stressed out. As I watched the news every night, I felt increasingly guilty. I wanted to help people, not hurt them. I wondered if I was spreading the virus without realizing it. In that moment I decided that the health of others was far more important than my finances. I finally made the decision to stop working on March 29.

I was so afraid I was going to lose my job because I hadn’t been laid off; I was choosing not to work. Furthermore, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to claim unemployment because I was not officially laid off of work. I was not sure how my boss would react. Would she view me as quitting? Could she fire me for choosing not to work

I wrote my boss a heartfelt letter and sent it to her on March 29, hoping she and the chiropractors I had grown to love valued me enough to respect my opinion of choosing not to work. Thankfully everyone was understanding and respectful about my choice. They said they would “welcome me back with open arms when this was all over.” I instantly felt relieved and all my guilt washed away and with that I knew I made the correct decision.

Being laid off has been more of a challenge then I expected. My life has been so busy and so fast-paced for so long that I forgot how to live more leisurely. I thought I would welcome the slower pace, but that only lasted about a week. With each day I felt more anxiety so I finally decided to sit with it and figure out where it was coming from.

I think a lot of my anxiety comes from feeling helpless. I’m used to helping patients every day, so to “stay home and stay safe” while doctors, nurses and other health care workers were getting slammed in Detroit with COVID-19 patients is difficult. I also feel anxiety because my daily routine is all mixed up. I went from working while my daughters were at school each day to having to stay home and do my best to entertain and teach my daughters each day. I’m discovering quickly that teachers deserve to be paid millions.

I oftentimes feel overwhelmed because I am trying to finish up my last few weeks of school, (I’m in school, working on my bachelor’s degree) but I can’t concentrate because my mind is pulled in so many directions with all the new changes in my life and in our country right now. Like many other people, I have to go through all of these changes while being bombarded with new, unsettling news about COVID-19 each day while seeing hate, anger and distrust grow between the public, the media, scientists, epidemiologists, economists and our federal and state leaders.

All of this confusion and controversy literally makes my heart hurt. The personal stuff I will get through and figure out with time but what will the future of our country look like? Are we going to come together and thrive or divide and take a dive?

I think the way we practice massage will never be the same unless COVID-19 is eradicated. Even then I think this pandemic experience has forever changed the way the public thinks about germs, illness and sanitation practices. In the future as a massage therapist I will have to be more upfront with my patients as well as more cautious and inquisitive.

I am hoping that the various massage boards come together and create a mandatory list of things massage therapists need to do in order to practice safely. I think putting mandatory guidelines in place would help the public to feel safe because this would let them know if certain standards are not met a practice can be reported and fined or shut down. Guidelines would not only protect the public, they would protect the therapists.

I think if mandatory safety and sanitation guidelines are put in place for massage therapists that are created by doctors and scientists who know how much protection is needed for the safety of all involved, I would feel safe going back to work by the end of May, as long as our numbers in Michigan continue to drop.

I want to encourage my fellow massage therapists to keep their chin up and stay strong. I think this is a great time to improve ourselves in any way we can mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically. Strength in any of these areas will not only improve our personal self, it will improve our family life, community and our practice. Remember, ripples turn into waves. If you are struggling please reach out — you are not alone!  Our profession is not over, but we all know it will be different. Take comfort in knowing we are all in this together so we can help each other succeed. There is strength in numbers.

Tracy Klein, LMT
Years in massage: 15
Employee, Chiropractic Unlimited
Grand Rapids, Michigan

“Virtual appointments help prevent clients from going into busy emergency rooms for pain.”

- ​Jeanette Falu-Bishop

A few days in I saw the need in touch and family stressors and decided to teach virtual couples massage courses to assist in stress relief and bonding and treating clients one-on-one virtually through a HIPAA-approved telehealth website guiding them through step-by-step plans to treat a variety of conditions from neck pain, shoulder pain, back pain and leg pain. You name it, I’ve guided it. These services have been approved to insurance companies and lien companies for billing in our state.

I also provide business mentoring for massage therapists where they can go on our website and watch on-demand courses to create a successful business. Topics like accounting, marketing, insurance billing, depositions and more.

How do I imagine my future as a massage therapist might be different compared with what I and my clients have known? I don’t know. I look at the right now and not what happens tomorrow because as we know, life can change in an instant. My virtual appointments will have to do until we can return to work in the clinic. I am cautiously optimistic.

I personally do not feel comfortable opening my clinic just yet because there are too many unknowns. We treat clients with a range of conditions. How are we to know that their exhaustion isn’t a sign of COVID-19, or they are “getting over a cold” or they are not even symptomatic but are contagious — and now we have put our staff, clients and families at risk? It’s too big of a problem with no solution at this point other than continuing to do virtual sessions. This is what is working for us at this time.

At this time the need for our services are more crucial than ever in assisting clients with pain management and range of motion issues. Virtual appointments help prevent clients from going into busy emergency rooms for pain.

Jeanette Falu-Bishop
Years in massage: 18
Owner, Structure Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork Inc.
Colorado Springs, Colorado

“Looking at my income reports, it’s steady until the virus fallout hit. It brought us to a complete, abrupt halt.”

- ​​​​​​Ricky Prevatte

On Monday, March 16, I was booked for the entire day. The virus was the lead story on every news channel around. All but one of my clients called that day to ask if we were going to be open for their appointments and if they should reschedule.

At that time, there were so many uncertainties about how the coronavirus spread, so there was a lot of fear mingled with that.

I chose to err on the side of caution, feeling an industry shutdown would probably be in the works very shortly. I probably took one or two more of my most regular clients that week. Every single client called in advance to see if we were open. And all but the one or two, we mutually cancelled.

The following Wednesday, March 23, it was state-mandated that all massage therapists cease work. So, from March 16 my wife (who does my administrative work) and I started to plan on not working and shutting the business down indefinitely. The irony was not lost on me that choosing to have my own practice, to set my own hours, etc. — that it didn’t make a hill of beans’ worth of difference in this uncharted territory. Looking at my income reports, it’s steady until the virus fallout hit. It brought us to a complete, abrupt halt.

Financial issues have been our biggest concern. We practice from our home. Usually there are two or three months of funds that we put back for emergencies. We have great credit. But with all of that, there is still the uncertainty of when will we be able to open again and if we will have the same clients as when we closed.

I have built my client base for years. I have branded and marketed my business the very best way I know how. I mentor other blind small business owners, and I think it is that uncertainty that hits us the hardest.

For when we reopen, I have gone over mentally anything we could add to our regular routine when it comes to disinfecting and deep cleaning. I am staying up on regulations and recommendations from the state massage board. Can we do more? We will stagger our clients, leaving more time between them to see that everything is checked and double-checked. I want to feel comfortable when I am at a doctor’s appointment, in a dentist’s chair or getting a haircut. I want that for my clients.

I consider that since this COVID-19 shutdown has occurred, that it could occur again, maybe annually, if the virus appears the way the flu does. Since this is our main income (my wife books entertainment and I am in a variety band that plays private events), we may have to rethink if this is going to continue to be a viable means of making a living. I feel that being totally blind, I’m a bit more limited in picking and choosing what I want to do for a career, and it really just knocked the wind out of my sails. I pray we can control the virus spread, and that the business will come back as it did pre-COVID-19.

I am excited and so ready to get back to my routine. Sheltering at home is nothing new for the blind, but as one who gets stir-crazy being at home for two or three days in a normal scenario, this has been a difficult go for me. I’ll be glad to talk face-to-face to my clients, find out how they have held up during quarantine and how it has affected them.

I’ve noticed much in the departments of shamers and blamers from our industry’s movers and shakers. I have taken the position of my mentors who have absolutely caused no disturbance and remain neutral. It seems like there is a faction who feels the need to be relevant during this downtime. They’ve done an excellent job of wielding their power and it’s turned me off.

I have tried to focus on what was important before the shutdown: tracking results and tracking vibratory/percussive neuropathy treatments, developing a CE curriculum and working on veterans. What I would really like to do is to teach people how to work from home, especially learning from the shutdown how much of a slush fund we really had — all generated from administering massage treatments. I cannot be more grateful not to have had employees or overhead like many practices. Our setup has seemingly served us well.

Ricky Prevatte, LMBT
Years in massage: 37
Owner, Ricky Prevatte Massage
Charlotte, North Carolina

“It is so important at this time to connect with spiritual resources.”

- ​​Tracy Lynn Dietz

I have changed my massage and energy work practice to fit the COVID-19 global pandemic, offering Reiki circle meditations on social media and distant healing Reiki for those in need. I have not been able to practice bodywork since the CAMTC notice March 16, 2020, and have been terminated from my employment at a spa in San Francisco.

I have been a Reiki Master for 15 years and bodyworker for 25 years. I have a spiritual practice of Reiki and was guided to offer free online Reiki circle meditations for spiritual support now, during COVID-19. (Prior to COVID-19 I would only do Reiki circles for attuned students, but now at this time I have opened it up to all, regardless of energy work or faith tradition, on Facebook Live and YouTube.)

Each online Reiki Circle Meditation is one hour in length, has a different focus according to my guidance, or depending on online conversations with online family/friends and from reading global news. For example, some meditations focus on inner qualities such as inner calm, healing fight/flight response, spiritual renewal and outer healing such as healing for those with COVID-19 and severe symptoms, medical workers and a Sunday World Peace through Global Cease Fire (directing wartime funds toward COVID-19.). 

Today’s Reiki Circle Meditation focused on nursing homes. While I did a self-Reiki treatment, it also occurred to me it is perfect I guide others in Reiki self-treatment because we are physically isolated and cannot receive touch therapy of any kind at this time. Furthermore, due to the highly contagious nature of COVID-19, we may not be able to practice touch therapy again until there is large-scale testing, medical treatment and a vaccine.

Each weekend since March 21, I was guided to give free distant healings for COVID-19 medical workers. In each session with medical workers, I did a video session (Facebook Messenger) through the phone. They were skeptical at first but they even fell asleep during the 30-minute sessions. Then, I also gifted sessions to those parents I know who are working from home and caring for their children, those who lost jobs and those living alone experiencing isolation.

I have been amazed I could provide this healing at a distance for immediate healing. I placed posts on Facebook and Instagram and times available throughout the weekend. It was easy and simple to do this through social media and I experienced I could affect healing without being physically present as my healing experience pre-COVID-19.

It is so important at this time to connect with spiritual resources by ourselves, practice self-treatment, then send collective healing out to the global community, as we are all in this together!

Tracy Lynn Dietz
Years in bodywork: 25
Reiki master
San Francisco, California 

“I didn’t fully comprehend the danger involved with COVID-19 — it took in-home quarantine, going out with a face mask and being conscious of everything I touched.”

- ​​​​​​​Kevin Deighan

When I had to pause my massage practice I was devastated. At the time, I didn’t fully comprehend the danger involved with COVID-19. It took some getting used to in-home quarantine, going out with a face mask and being conscious of everything I touched.

Professionally, I’ve been in contact with almost all of my clients, providing positive guidance and hope; and grappling with the CDC and OSHA guidelines for returning to work and how it’s all going to work.

When I re-open, I’d like to think that the client is willing to understand and cooperate with us as we introduce the new procedures that will enable us to maintain a safe work space and environment. It will require new intake forms and taking temps. More time required between clients to totally sanitize will decrease daily client load. And of course, being cautious to guard my own health as well as the health of my clients and coworkers.

I hope and pray this isn’t a hoax perpetuated by politics. I’m not a vaccine person; only took a flu shot once in my life. I suffered the worst sickness I’ve ever experienced as a result. I currently see a holistic doctor that is successfully treating my Hashimoto’s auto-immune disease. He has me on a daily intake of supplements including vitamin C and D as well as a compounded formula. Knock on wood; with the exception of seasonal allergies, I’ve never felt better.

Kevin Deighan, LMT
Years in massage: 15
Independent practitioner
Murrells Inlet, South Carolina