Massage Therapists Share Stories of Challenge & Hope
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 truly believe we will come out of this with more compassion and stronger, as people and as professionals.”
This is not even close to how I imagined my first year of business looking, but if I can take a lesson from this pandemic and all of the hardship it has caused, it is that things may not go as planned, but we are capable of adapting and coming together to lift each other up during uncertain times. I truly believe we will come out of this with more compassion and stronger, as people and as professionals.
In the several days leading up to the decision to temporarily close, I felt anxious and conflicted. I felt so torn between continuing my practice along with my enhanced sanitary protocols, versus listening to this guilt-ridden little voice in my head telling me that closing was the right thing to do, considering we could be asymptomatic and still be contributing to the spread.
In my head I would say, “Even though my clients and I are seemingly 100% healthy, and we both benefit from our sessions, we could very well be part of the spread of this deadly virus.” This little voice grew louder and was even interrupting my sleep, which eventually led me to the painful decision to pause my practice.
After all, our first goal is to do no harm.
COVID-19 has created many challenges and obstacles, professionally and personally. Being in my first year of business and slowly recovering from start-up expenses, it feels like the worst time to be cut off from all income. Anytime money has been tight in the past, I’ve always been able to adjust my schedule to work longer hours to create financial balance. This is the first time that control has been taken away from us as massage therapists.
I have always known that I love what I do with my whole heart, but I think I’m realizing that it is also infused into my identity and sense of purpose, as well as an outlet for me to create and to relieve my own stress, so it’s easy to feel a bit lost and out of balance without this comfort I’ve grown used to.
I hope we all never take the gift of touch for granted and hug each other a little tighter and treat people with a little more compassion than ever before.
Katie Brock, LMT, CCT, CVST, FMT
Years in massage: 4
Owner, Haven Wellness + Spa
Overland Park, Kansas
“We have knowledge and tools that can help in this moment if we reach out to those who are most in need.”
- George P. Kousaleos
During the 42 years that I have been a massage therapist it has become clear that some of the most giving and compassionate people I have ever met were my fellow practitioners
In times of crisis, whether it was the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco, or Hurricane Andrew in 1992 that devastated Homestead, Florida, or 9-11, or Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that destroyed the lives of so many in New Orleans and the Mississippi River delta, massage therapists have always stepped forward to assist those most affected by the catastrophe, especially those on the front lines of medical and community assistance.
But today we are asked to shelter in place to protect those who we normally serve. COVID-19 doesn’t allow us to step forward and assist those who are desperate for healing touch.
So, what can we do?
Each of us likely will know someone who will be infected by this virus. We may know someone who is working on the front lines of medical service who are valiantly serving their patients. We may also know members of the police and fire departments who are at greater risk while providing our communities with essential services. We can reach out to these individuals and their agencies and thank them by pledging to serve them when our massage services are again a part of daily life.
We can also become somatic educators during this critical time, offering information and advice through social media on how people can incorporate self-massage into their daily routine. Teaching breathing techniques, stretching protocols and hydrotherapy options can go a long way in supporting the homeostasis that is necessary for a strong immune system. We have knowledge and tools that can help in this moment if we reach out to those who are most in need.
And that includes your fellow therapists. Take the time to reconnect with your colleagues and offer the promise of finding ways to support each other once we return to our professional practice. We may need creative ways to reopen our practices that will demand a larger cooperative venture, combining “group think” strategies and shared values. Never underappreciate the strength there is in numbers, especially when the outcomes are inspired by discovering resources that will serve the many. Each of us must be a part of the future health care system that teaches and promotes unity and integration.
Finally, I want to thank each one of you for having made the decision in this lifetime to offer your vital energy, your professional skills, and your personal devotion to helping those in need. There will be a time in the not-too-distant future that we will be needed to offer the therapy that is essential for the world to recover.
Take and give good care!
George P. Kousaleos, LMT
Years in massage: 42
Founder, CORE Institute
“A lot of questions and a lot of unknowns with COVID-19 need to be addressed before we as massage therapists can go back in that room knowing it’s impossible to stay six feet apart.”
- Toi Bonner
When the owner of my spa came to the staff asking our thoughts and opinions about closing or staying open, I knew then this was not going to be good. We closed our doors on March 23, thinking we would open back up in two weeks.
It has been a challenge. I’m sure we’re all worrying about paying mortgages. Not all mortgage companies are willing to say, “We are in this together.” They want their payments. My biggest challenge right now is trying to figure out what is going to be my new normal as a massage therapist.
For instance, I’m a certified LaStone Therapist; what new way do I use and maintain my stones? Should massage therapists use gloves to massage clients? Should massage therapists use disposable gowns? Should every client’s temperature be taken before they enter the spa? There are a lot of questions and a lot of unknowns with COVID-19 that need to be addressed in detail before we as massage therapists can go back in that room knowing it’s impossible to stay six feet apart.
During this down time, I have not thought about CEs. But I am doing more research trying to figure out how and my coworkers and I can remain safe, and what we need to do to protect ourselves and our clients as well. To their credit, the International SPA Association has posted some very helpful information.
Massage therapists will have to practice in a different manner. Gloves may become our new normal for a little while, and I’m sure more safety precautions will have to be put in place. As I said, there are just too many unknowns, and no sure way to protect us or our clients. At least not yet!
Toi Bonner, LMT, Certified LaStone Therapist
Years in massage: 20
Team Leader, A Moment’s Peace Day Spa and Salon
“This may mean seeing less people each day, for health and safety.”
- Deb Johnson
I like the word “pause.” This implies the closure of my business of 15 years is temporary. We closed March 26, 2020, the week of my 25th year practicing as a massage therapist. To be honest, I felt sad, as my clients come to me for help with a myriad of issues with their bodies. That last week, however, I felt conflicted balancing helping my clients and possibly endangering their health and mine.
My biggest challenge personally is not being able to see my family (besides my wonderful husband). Our daughter lives 12 hours away, and my 82-year-old mother lives three hours away. COVID-19 stole Easter from us! We did the best we could online with Zoom.
My biggest challenge professionally has been the financial uncertainty. I have applied for grants, loans and unemployment, and as of the last week of April I have not received a penny. Thanks to my amazing clients, I am financially solvent through mid-May. If we stay closed beyond that, I am unsure how I am going to pay my bills.
Just like the State of Kansas, we will reopen slowly. When we do reopen, we will wear face masks, sanitize surfaces before and after each client and stagger scheduling. This may mean seeing less people each day, for health and safety.
Deb Johnson, BCTMB
Years in massage: 25
Owner, Stillpoint Massage & Bodywork Studio;
Faculty, WellSpring School of Allied Health
“The challenge will be going back to work, and knowing I will have to see fewer clients due to the time it will take to sanitize my office.”
- Nina Hanson
I had to pause my massage practice because the last client I worked with had been exposed to the virus the day before (but we didn’t know until the day after). I shut down immediately and let my clients know my decision.
The responses I received were encouraging and thanked me for my quick response that saved them being exposed. My client that was diagnosed with COVID-19 had symptoms of severe muscle cramps. We stayed in touch the entire time of her recovery. She now has been cleared by the Health Dept.
I’m waiting for the antibody test. During her massage, she wore a mask and I wore gloves. I had no symptoms during her convalescence.
The challenge will be going back to work, and knowing I will have to see fewer clients due to the time it will take to sanitize my office. I have a very busy schedule, and who am I going to bump or disappoint in order to not overwhelm myself? It would definitely be better if I had two rooms to work out of — one room just sanitized while the other room is used.
I have a weekly newsletter that I send out to all of my clients. I have information on the left half of the page with links to sites, and the right side is the lighter side of the pause, including some really funny jokes or memes and commentary on my musings. I actually get a lot of positive feedback on the memes and commentary, with an appreciation of the health info.
I also set up e-gift cards for those clients who want to pre-pay during the pause, and a site on PayPal for those who just want to donate to get me through. I have gotten over $1,000 total, which is very heartwarming!
My biggest concern is whether I will be doing sterilization properly. I have to buy more yoga pants and uniform shirts, coverings for the heating pad on the table (probably a good idea anyway), having my new sterilization equipment received in time, cleaning out my room of decoration, and figuring out how to clean the public toilet (yes, I’m in an office building) so that my clients are safe.
This is a great challenge for all of us. It certainly will tell if we have been doing things right or not. I have clients calling me quite a lot to make sure that I’m OK and ask if they can do anything to help during this time of rest.
We’re all waiting for the antibody tests to make sure that I’ve got those little white blood cells so that I can allay any fears that my clients may have when they come back to get massages.
Nina Hanson, LMT
Years in massage: 25
Owner, Nice Touch Massage
Syracuse, New York
“I was relieved when our governor told MTs to close our doors.”
- Brenda Schroeder-Miller
I closed my practice a few days before the governor closed us down. One of my clients, a doctor, told me about what she was seeing in the clinic she practices in. I became very concerned and that evening I spoke to my husband.
We decided that same evening to cancel our vacation plans for the following week to Myrtle Beach. The next day I closed my business down. I just didn’t see how it would be safe to continue to practice safely for my clients, myself and my family. It really was a relief when our governor passed his order for massage therapists to close our doors.
Professionally, it has been a struggle to keep my business alive and not have an income. I have not received any unemployment yet, no grants, loans or any other income. It’s hard to accept money from clients who want to purchase gift cards as I just don’t know when they will be able to redeem them — or if they will ever be able to redeem them. I also have a landlord who isn’t very sympathetic to this and has not offered to give me any break on my rent. I have had to turn my phone, website and other utilities off.
I have kids and a husband who are on the front lines and trying to support them emotionally and any other way I can feels like my job right now.
I have an 84-year-old mother who I have not seen for six weeks. I have five siblings and we all have a job to make sure she is OK emotionally and physically, getting her meds and food. She occupies a lot of my thoughts. Our other children are in the unemployment line right now, and supporting them with money and groceries is difficult when I am in the same position as they are, but we are a very tight family and we are getting through this together.
My future as a massage therapist will be totally different. Let’s face it: Massage is the furthest thing from social distancing! I have sent my thoughts to our governor asking that he please not open Minnesota massage therapists’ businesses without reading my letter about what massage therapists do. I also asked him to consider talking to us before he makes a decision about opening us back up.
They don’t know what we do — our governor still calls us massage parlors. We need a statewide coalition of sorts to advise those who make decisions about us.
Years in massage: 19
Owner, Lake Region Massage & Bodyworks
“Once I’m able to resume working, I feel that my practice will be even more loving and heart-centered than ever before.”
- Tanya Moore
When I realized I had to pause my massage practice, I honestly felt sad. My clients rely on me for pain relief, emotional stability and so much more. I felt like I was letting them down.
The biggest challenges I’ve faced during COVID-19 is financial instability. I have been in quarantine with my three children, plus two others this whole time, and without an income. I have not been approved for unemployment and haven’t received any stimulus check to date. A few very generous clients have purchased gift cards, and that has really been a blessing.
In order to enhance my practice, I’ve been taking Shamanic Infusion classes via Zoom. Incorporating this into my energy work sessions will be so amazing once I’m able to resume working. I feel that my practice will be even more loving and heart-centered than ever before. I care for each of my clients like they’re family, but know that this will only be intensified once I’m able to open my practice again.
I feel excited about reopening soon. Since the shelter-in-place order I’ve volunteered in the hospital doing energy work and guided meditation for ER doctors and nurses, and have felt so honored to be able to help in this way. Once I reopen, this energy will only intensify.
We’re all in this together. I feel that as massage therapists, we will stand up for each other, supporting one another, and will come out of this stronger all the way around.
Taunya Moore, CMT
Years in massage: 12
“I work in a mask, glasses, gloves and gown.”
- Andrea Fiorillo
We are a medical massage practice and work with multiple local doctors to help their patients with multiple issues. Many of our clients are on wellness plans to help in ways other therapies have not. Many of these people would regress badly if they were not able to be seen.
My team was watching our Governor’s speech and we all yelled at the screen when he said “massage parlors” would have to close. We couldn’t believe we were called a “parlor”; also, I was not truly surprised because other states had been shut down.
I immediately got on the phone with our local health department to see what the rules were for clinics that work primarily with people who are on doctors’ orders. I was told I needed to close, but about a week later we got an exemption from the governor’s office to see clients with doctors’ referrals. We as a team chose to remain closed until April 24 to collect the proper PPE and cleaning supplies we would need to see clients.
The biggest challenge is not being able to help people. I feel I was created to be a massage therapist, and not working for a month was more emotional than I thought it would be.
I always said if I had all the time in the world I would go back to school. Well, I did. I took eight different massage and personal training courses in the month we were closed, and created a course on OSHA and CDC standards and recommendations.
We opened on Friday to clients who are in medical need and referred by their doctor. It has been interesting; I work in a mask, glasses, gloves and gown. It was a bit odd at first, but after two days it’s become second nature.
We do contactless payments, have them wait in the car until we call them in for their appointment, take temperatures, do wellness questions. hand them a mask when they come in, space more time between appointments to ensure we have enough time to clean between sessions, and we now do screening calls two days in advance and ask the same medical questions the CDC recommends to ask.
There’s not been a single problem with reopening. I have taken multiple courses and CEs with the CDC and read multiple OSHA papers; I have also consulted with multiple medical professionals on how to treat patients responsibly. We are taking many extra precautions and I feel very comfortable with our choice to open to those in a medical need.
Andrea Fiorillo, LMT, MMT
Years in massage: 8
Office manager, Virginia Medical Massage
“I am sure we will be one of the last businesses to open because we work so closely with people.”
- Penny Anderson
I was super bummed to have to close down my practice. I am still getting calls every day with people still looking for massage. It is also super concerning that I have yet to get any type of assistance. I applied for unemployment but it was only opened up last week. I applied for food stamps but have heard nothing back from them I applied for the SBA loan and never heard back from that either.
I am trying as hard as I can to remain calm and know that I am always taken care of, but this is serious. I have been off of work now for five weeks and there is no real idea when we can start working again. People are asking me daily when I will be coming back, but I have no idea.
I am single, so staying home alone constantly has been a real challenge. I have been trying to do some continuing education in the meantime, but too much time on my hands is maddening.
I have built a giant list of people waiting to get in. (I am a very busy therapist.) When we do reopen we will all be wearing masks.
I really hope we are able to open soon. However, I am sure we will be one of the last businesses to open because we work so closely with people.
Penny Anderson, LMT, MMP, SI, RM
Years in massage: 19
Owner, Body & Soul Therapeutic Massage
“Touching as a living has effectively been banned for the first time in my professional life.”
- Thomas Myers
When I realized I had to pause my massage practice, I felt glum, stunned and depressed. My biggest challenge has been the lack of being able to touch — anyone! And that reflects into lots of small areas of my psyche, which is very used to giving and receiving a lot of touch.
Some of my teachers have been able to transfer over to doing sessions online with the clients doing self-massage or working with SMR tools like balls and rollers. As you can imagine, this is most effective for the folks in pain as opposed to the folks who just come in for a break. Of course, some have turned to other talents to tide them over, but all are feeling that big itch to get that “vitamin” of positive touch back in their daily diet. Giving it is as nourishing as getting it, in my humble opinion.
I am neither a seer nor an epidemiologist, but I have lived through a few of these transitions.
I turned 70 last summer, and 45’ of those years I have engaged professionally with the primal power of touch, a choice I have never regretted.
I was awakened from the ’50s slumber by the Kennedy assassination, protested for civil rights and against The Man in the ’60s, and did environmental projects in the early ’70s when it was evident we were reaching the limits of growth. After finding bodywork, I immersed myself in practice for 25 years, tackling every cultural and clinical variation I could find.
I was back in the U.S. and starting to teach when 9/11 happened — such a rip in the cultural fabric that our business went down for a while. Ditto the financial crisis of 2008 — that had us struggling for a couple of years. On a smaller scale, so did the ice storm that left our little Maine office without power for two weeks — that was a severe form of isolation. And when our website got hacked and we lost all our data, we had to regroup from the ground up.
And of course, like you, I have lived through my losses, my heartaches and my own bad decisions.
But I have never seen anything like this.
Touching as a living has effectively been banned for the first time in my professional life, and so has gathering for classes and exchange. For many, our profession has been snatched from us through no fault of our own, just another random fractal in the dramatically uneven effect COVID-19 is having on our society.
As I write, this uniquely isolating situation continues to evolve, but many of my colleagues across the world are unable to work, and for those who are, sessions have fallen off.
Since emergence on the other side will be different for each of us, I wanted to offer a few general suggestions.
• Like everything else, this will pass. It’s bad, but it is a virus, and, through the wit of science or through the cycles of nature, we will get on top of it. We do not know the date, but when it arrives, people are going to want touch, contact, connection and feeling more than ever.
• But we will not go back to how it was. This is a life marker, and we as change agents must be willing to make a change ourselves to adjust to a new reality. What is the new reality? We don’t know yet. Have patience, and look for new buds of opportunity that will build out of these ashes. They always do.
Notice your compensation for the lack of touch. Forgive yourself the chocolate or whatever is necessary to counterbalance the loss of this grounding that touching others in a healing way provides. I don’t know about you, but my hands are almost literally itching, itching to touch someone. I’m trying to get a cat to pet, but even the shelters are closed. Chocolate!
• Stay in touch with your clients. You are a reassuring presence in people’s lives. Phone or email contacts from someone personal, someone you trust, are way more welcome than the 50 corporate emails I get each week.
• For some of you this will work better than others, but have a think: What can you offer your clients over the phone or the internet? Can you help them out of their discomfort by demonstrating some stretching or self-myofascial release? Could you talk them through a breathing relaxation and get them to a more down-regulated state? Is there something else you can offer to keep connection?
• You may be surprised at how many of your clients might take you up on this offer, and you might also be surprised at how well the connections you have forged might reach right through that narrow slit of the internet.
• Finally, use the time to educate yourself. We are all being inconvenienced, we are all scrambling, we are all shocked. As the fear and initial adjustments subside, do not lose touch with your profession or your skills. Participate in webinars, online courses, and especially in live events for excitement and connection. You know that person or method you always wanted to study? Now is the time. When you get back to work, it will be good to have something new to offer.
• Practice presence. One of the unsung benefits of being a manual therapist is that like a good meditation teacher, it demands your presence. I am so grateful to this profession for calling me to be attentive, and for teaching me compassion. Now comes the greatest lesson — staying present and practicing compassion on my/your own little self.
COVID-19 will cause a cultural change — and those who like to do massage on cruise ships might consider getting to sea another way. But I do not think most massage therapists will be out of business for long, and aside from a few additional expenses in sanitizers and a little extra time between clients, things will come up to near normal for most by the end of the year if not sooner.
My bet is that massage therapy will be among those activities deemed safe by the public. I bet hairdressers will get the same treatment; yoga and Pelotron classes may take a little longer. People trust their massage therapists — and the vast majority are worthy of that trust.
Years in bodywork: 45
Owner, educator, Anatomy Trains