Part 4: Massage Therapists Share ​Stories of Challenge & Hope

This is part four 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.

“Intense growth can come from hard circumstances.”

- ​​​​Amy Bradley Radford

I am a CE provider, and I knew this pause was going to impact my online training because if a massage therapist cannot make an income, they can’t continue to pay me for their memberships to train within my online training center. I lost 50% of my members to this pause.

I honestly didn’t know what I was going to do to earn back that weekly or monthly income. I also didn’t know how long this pause was going to be or what kind of long-term impact it was going to have. I started looking into some other types of training and expanded my thoughts about what I could offer and where. I have found work in the massage training field in a different capacity than I had thought before.

I am designing enhanced formats for more group coaching opportunities because it is easier to afford, and the group environment is very beneficial to the therapists who need some socializing (online).

I currently coach and I have offered a start of 30 days of free group coaching so that therapists can be ready to reopen with a plan. It has actually been extremely rewarding. And I know these therapists will continue with the coaching afterward because it helps drive them toward their goals and keeps them focused.

My goals were to train people online in advanced pain management skills, but I am learning there is a more rounded approach needed that involves growth in business along with hands-on skills. These two complement each other so much that success in one requires success in the other. I can see the future of my training will need to require components of both for the people I work with.

I always knew intense growth can be required during and come from hard circumstances. I am learning to be willing to look outside of the box for unique solutions at this time. Opportunity is all around you if you are willing to see it.

Amy Bradley Radford
Years in massage: 26
Owner, PPS Seminars
Idaho Falls, Idaho

“I am navigating the unemployment system to get pandemic unemployment assistance.”

- ​​​​Julie Finn

I had financial concerns when I realized I had to pause my massage practice. I also felt as though I was disappointing my clients. Staying in touch with my clients along with navigating the unemployment system to get pandemic unemployment assistance have been my biggest challenges.

I’m participating in continuing education along with doing research on best practices for when I can reopen, such as appropriate scheduling of clients, proper sanitation and instilling confidence in safety for clients when they return.

I was running a good practice previously, safeguarding the health and welfare of my clients. I know there will be different protocols we will need to follow, such as wearing PPE.

Julie Finn, LMT, BCTMB
Years in massage: 30
Owner, JB Therapeutic & Sports Massage
Walled Lake, Michigan

“I get messages from clients asking me to come to their house for massage.”

- ​​​​​Courtney Worrel-Pate

I closed my business one week before it was made mandatory by our governor. My reason for doing so was my clients were calling and canceling prior, frequently, due to news reports. I also did so because my other job is working in dialysis. I felt that I could bring harm to my family and clientele because I work at the largest dialysis clinic in the Southeast.

Professionally, I’m overwhelmed with my essential job trying to provide health care without showing panic and coming home to my family praying I don’t bring harm to them because I’m a single mom of two.

As for my clients, initially they were OK and understanding of being temporarily closed due to this pandemic. Now I get messages from clients asking me to come to their house for massage. I turn them down.

I believe that at first massage practice may be a little uneasy. but I think eventually things will be OK. I’m sure we will have what we consider normal again one day — just maybe not within the timeframe we would like. I’ve taken some CEs online to educate me more on my next career path. I’m also a full-time student as well, working on my bachelor’s in behavior science in corrections, so I chose to take some CEs on substance abuse.

I’m uneasy about reopening at the moment. I live in South Carolina and I’ve witnessed numerous people not taking it seriously and then some who are. Knowing that an individual can be carrying this virus and be asymptomatic can make you question every movement you make.

Courtney Worrel-Pate
Years in massage: 9
Owner, Soothing Phalanges Massage & Bodyworks
Manning, South Carolina

“A lot of the population has been cut off from touch and we as massage therapists have a responsibility to give this to our clients in safe, yet effective form.”

- ​Tracey Windmill

The day before the governor of Colorado announced a mandatory closure of all massage businesses, March 17, was my last day of accepting paying clients. My business is within a ski resort and we see hundreds of clients every season from all over the country and the world.

This is a more unique business model — having structured seasons when there is a flood of visitors to the area to attract them to the business and generate an income for all those working. Being in a ski resort means winter is it, baby… time to experience abundance in regard to connection with clients, bookings and making revenue in order for the business to pay the bills year-round.

We may see many clients only once, or we may also see repeat clients who visit the area to have an annual ski vacation, or perhaps have a second home in the area and book twice a month. And don’t forget the locals, who we love to see on our tables because they are some hard-working people.

The closing of the business cut short the opportunity not just for the business to generate revenue for paying its way through the months of scarcity that Colorado mountain towns experience, but also for all 10 of the LMTs who work at the business to be able to collect paychecks that would pay for their rent, and for their families to eat during the lean months of our off-season.

Navigating COVID-19 is terrifying and the target seems to change on a daily or weekly timeline. Extended stay-at-home dates and guidelines happened at first, followed by moving into the Safer at Home act here in Colorado.

The financial side of the business both professionally and personally is challenging, to say the least. I have been incredibly fortunate to have amazing landlords who have waived rent for three months to support tenants through the COVID-19 pandemic. I am also blessed that while I live in a very, very small town that my community has a nonprofit that has immediately set up a Small Business Emergency Fund that has provided a grant to my business in the form of paying for bills directly. This is the only assistance the business has received so far, and I am still waiting to hear back from applications for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan with the Small Business Administration.

With the governor still mandating that all spas remain closed, and with no known date as to when opening will be allowed, there is this huge expanse of uncertainty to navigate. Will we have to wear masks? What about PPE? Where do I purchase those supplies for all 10 LMTs, including myself, who work at my business location in a way that does not deplete from sources such as hospitals that are experiencing shortages? It’s a challenge to do the right amount of research without falling down the rabbit hole of “this is the solution,” only to find out the next day that the precautionary measures for reopening are changing.

“Patience, Grasshopper” is a mantra to be repeated many, many, many times a day.

Also having a seasonal business, the months of May and early June are typically our fallow time, when all staff can experience some downtime to heal their own bodies from heavy booking loads on their schedules, take vacation or do CE workshops to further their skill set. When regular businesses can open back up to hopefully their regular clientele, we in seasonal businesses do not have that opportunity, since it will be the off-season for us.

Websites have been updated and rescheduling has occurred for in-person classes we offer as a NCBTMB-Approved CE Provider. Emails have been sent and received for future opportunities of presenting classes. Content for CE classes is being revised and reimagined.

Judging at the World Massage Championships in Copenhagen, Denmark, and presenting a Master Class with a colleague has been postponed till 2021. Video, both promotional and also educational for this Master Class, is being worked on from footage shot last fall. Interviews are coming up with the Global Massage Academy based in the UK. I continue to follow those I look up to in my profession for guidance.

One of the most important things is that I communicate in a clear and accurate way with all my staff at my massage practice to make sure they feel supported during these uncertain times. Often the most I am saying is that there is no new information, but by being consistent with communication they know they can reach out, that I am there to support them through this experience, and that I am committed to having jobs for them when we emerge through the other side of COVID-19.

I think I speak for more than just myself when I say that imagining that I can go back to how it was before COVID-19 sure is appealing. The thing is, that may just be an option, but not immediately, or then again it may not. Regulations of the profession could completely change how the massage industry moves forward. Right now, all that is certain is uncertainty itself.

About reopening, I feel very unsure. For myself, there is a combination of fear and bravery. While touch is an integral part of thriving in life, there is still so much unknown about the future of COVID-19. I do believe that we need touch in all its forms, nurturing and therapeutic to name a couple, and that while there is fear there will also be a vast need for this healing modality to occur. A lot of the population has been cut off from touch and we as massage therapists have a responsibility to give this to our clients in safe, yet effective form.

We are living in a time when on the surface it feels like we’re being robbed of freedom, but it really is an opportunity to evaluate how we operate both on a personal and professional level and shift through the truth of what was working well and areas that need improvement.

Tracey Windmill, LMT
Years in practice: 25
Owner, Alpenglow Massage
Winter Park, Colorado

“My clients are already confident that I keep and operate a clean environment.”

- ​​​​​​Deborah L. Nesbit

I was surprised when I realized I had to pause my massage practice, as this happens every year with the traditional flu season. Clients and I both take appropriate precautions, provided they are well. My clients already know and agree to stay at home whenever they are sick, with anything. If a client arrives sick they are turned away!

My clients are already confident that I keep and operate a clean environment. But the future holds an entire city or county full of potential new clients who won’t or can’t get past or over the fear that has been instilled in them by a possible “virus of death.”

It was a contagious virus, granted, but I believe it will take at least a year or more before this can be emotionally healed by the public in general.

I am feeling intimidated and insecure about what will be expected of us and required of massage therapists, if and when we are allowed to begin working our profession again, especially the financial commitments. Will they be requiring HEPA air filters machines, gloves, helmets, face masks, throwaway sheets, minimum square footage rooms for social distancing, lobbies? The list could get expensive.

Although this virus was extremely contagious, as no human had any antibodies to fight it, or had other health ailments that compromised their general immune system to fight it, I believe the numbers will show, in due time, to be equivalent to the flus we are traditionally aware of.

Deborah L. Nesbit, CMT
Years in massage: 34
Owner, Westlake Healing Arts
Westlake Village, California

“I want my clients to know that I’m still invested in their well-being and for my practice to stay relevant.”

- ​​​​​​Halley E. Moore

I felt heartbroken when I realized I had to pause my massage practice. Anxious. Frustrated. I’d just reached five years in business at the beginning of March. Business had been great so far this year, and I was planning a celebratory event for clients and friends to mark the milestone. Having to send out a letter announcing a temporary closure instead of an invitation to a celebration made it sting even more.

The evidence pointed to closing before it was made mandatory. I closed a full week before our local stay-at-home order took effect. My reputation has been built on wanting to hold massage therapists to higher standards of professionalism, education and ethics. I promised my clients a safe, transparent, inclusive space with evidence-based approaches, and staying true to that meant closing down my sole means of employment.

I’ve been keeping my audience engaged with social media posts and periodic client emails. Topics have ranged from home self-care suggestions to sharing my personal experiences. Keeping that personal connection keeps those relationships alive and I want my clients to know that I’m still invested in their well-being and for my practice to stay relevant.

I am usually someone that has a picture of the future. I try to plan for a variety of eventualities in both the short and long term. Right now there are so many unknowns that I am really struggling to picture what a safe, ethical massage therapy practice will look like.

So much of my practice and therapeutic benefit of massage centers on personal, focused communication and attention.

That comes from the intimacy of sharing close quarters with someone, reading facial expressions, verbal and nonverbal cues, and creating a comfortable environment. I worry about sacrificing comfort in favor of an overly sterile, clinical setting. I worry about nuance getting lost behind a mask.

With the resources and information we have now, we can’t guarantee our clients’ (and our own) safety. Even following all of the sanitation guidelines that have been talked about, taking temperatures (is this even in our SOP?), and moving to paperless or phone or video chat intakes don’t eliminate the risk of asymptomatic transmission.

I am also considering what increasing time between clients and increasing time spent with intake does to our pricing models. A single client will now need a much larger time investment, and the amount of clients a therapist can see in a day will be impacted. Pricing should be raised to reflect these factors, but the widespread economic impact we will see coupled with the panic of being out of work for so long will leave a lot of therapists hesitant to do so.

I am incredibly frustrated by the lack of leadership and guidance being shown by our professional associations and state board. This is not a new frustration, but the situation right now highlights the downfall of not having more cohesive messaging and leadership on a national, state or local level.

Halley E. Moore, LMT
Years in massage: 6
Owner, Calliope Massage Studio
St. Louis, Missouri

“All practitioners will need to modify how we’ve always practiced, according to the restrictions and limitations imposed by health and government authorities.”

- ​Irene Diamond

When I realized I had to pause my massage practice, I felt disappointed that we had to cancel all the appointments we had on the books because that meant clients and patients would not receive the care they desperately need — and, of course, we would be out the revenue.

One of the biggest challenges was to put an abrupt stop to almost all operations on our clinic. It is like turning a huge ship, the momentum of full speed ahead is an incredibly time-consuming process, and you cannot just turn a switch since everything is so inter-connected.

We are still providing video visits, so a new challenge is managing that aspect of the process.

I’m currently in a more wait-and-see position before I make decisions on how we will begin to start physical visits. We have continued our outreach to current clients but have not continued the offline marketing efforts we always do, aside from being available and providing support in our private Facebook group for the community, and being a contributor to local organizations and the media.

I personally don’t see a big change in my particular future because so much of my specific therapeutic approach has always involved incorporating client movement and conversation, with a partial component of manual manipulation.

For the near future, therapists whose sessions only incorporate manual touch therapy will need to be able to adjust and accommodate their practice methods drastically. All practitioners will need to modify how we’ve always practiced, according to the restrictions and limitations imposed by health and government authorities.

Therapists and clinics will be required to re-think business as usual if they want to survive this outbreak. If their identity is only as a massage therapist and (even temporarily) they cannot practice massage, they will be lost. It is absolutely crucial to begin to accept there are other defining qualities, attributes and contributions that make up one’s identity.

Irene Diamond, RT
Years in massage: 30
Owner, Diamond Pain Relief & Wellness
San Francisco, California

“It is great to have the technology to be able to keep the company moving forward even if the steps are quite small right now.”

- ​Jean Shea

As a business owner who manufactures products for our industry, I was very concerned how long I would have to be closed and what would be happening to my employees.

Wanting answers as to when we can reopen and what the conditions of our industry will be at that time are the biggest challenges right now. I realize there are no answers to these questions.

We informed our customers that we would ship orders one day per week and some of our employees have routed their office phone to their cell phone so customers with questions can contact us via phone or email.

We are hoping that things will basically be the same and we can build from that basis. We are looking forward to re-opening soon.

It is great to have the technology to be able to keep the company moving forward even if the steps are quite small right now.

Jean Shea
President, BIOTONE
Years in business: 30
San Diego, California

“I am in the high-risk group, and so are many of our clients.”

- ​​​Joe Cinquina

My wife is both a therapist and a retired nurse, and when stories first started to surface she said we should prepare for the situation to get worse. I am in the high-risk group, and so are many of our clients. As the situation progressed, we saw several options but only one choice. We decided to close our practice on March 14. We saw our last client that day and have been closed and staying at home since then.

The biggest change professionally has been the transition to online teaching for some of the lecture classes. I miss seeing my colleagues and my students. Personally, I’m learning how I can use this new knowledge to create online music classes for my second career.

We are keeping abreast of the recommendations for safe practices, and we have disinfected our office carefully. We will reopen slowly and we will begin by only seeing established clients.

Fortunately, our governor is doing an excellent job in calming fears and is slowly beginning to lift restrictions, beginning with medical facilities. Massage therapists will not be included until he receives a detailed plan from our licensing board. This could happen any day.

It appears that the initial restrictions will include taking a more detailed history and working with masks, gloves and protective gear. Clients will have temperatures taken and will wear masks, so there will need to be position adjustments as well. Our new normal is not going to be the same as we are used to.

We are very conscious of the danger of a second spike, so we will be observing the situation until we feel safe. I’m grateful for the advice of the most knowledgeable among us, and I hope that as a profession we have represented ourselves well.

Joe Cinquina, LMT, CKTS
Years in massage: 13
Co-owner, Soular Massage Pain Management
Lexington, Kentucky

“Therapeutic touch is much needed during this time, and your skills are wanted by your clients.”

- ​​​​​​​​Kayla Chandler

I’m located in Georgia, so I have already opened back up. When I heard Governor Brian Kemp state that massage therapists were allowed to go back to work on April 24, 2020, even before the shelter-in-place order was lifted, I was completely shocked! It had been only a couple of weeks ago that I was deemed non-essential, so I expected that it would be months before I would be massaging again.

I will admit that at first I did not feel I was ready to return. However, with time I came around to the idea. I felt confident in my new safety measures and that I could be successful in re-opening. I followed guidelines from the CDC in regard to the recommendation of wearing a mask/face covering while out in public. I knew that when the time came to re-open I would want my clients and me both to wear a mask or face covering during the session. I learned to sew just to be able to make my own cloth masks that I could offer my clients to wear.

Cleaning and disinfecting was a concern, but thankfully before the store shelves went empty I had purchased enough cleaning supplies to last me for a number of months. I opted to remove the blanket that I use on my table and instead have bath sheets (jumbo-size towels) that are put in the wash after each use, just like you would do with sheets.

On my first day back, I felt very weird asking my client to wash their hands, if I could take their temperature and to please keep on the mask they already had on. The client didn’t seem to mind and they were very thankful that I was back at work because their back had been hurting for weeks. As I did the massage I felt like I was home, that this is where I am meant to be, and where I want to be.

For any massage therapist that is fearful of returning or that doesn’t know if they want to, please remember that we care for people with our hands, that therapeutic touch is much needed during this time, and that your skills are wanted by your clients. We will adapt as we educate ourselves on a new way to exist in the time we all find ourselves in.

Kayla Chandler, LMT
Years in massage: 10
Employee, Conyers Chiropractic & Massage
Conyers, Georgia