In north Minneapolis, come for the haircut, stay for the shot

A woman points at a card a man is holding.
Black Nurses Rock member nurse Lily Thomas (left) tells Chinaker Kinapoe to keep his vaccine card at a vaccine clinic at the Power of People Leadership Institute in Minneapolis in March. A new initiative is bringing vaccine clinics to Black-owned barbershops and beauty salons.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

Teto Wilson doesn’t need to know your business. But if you sit in his chair, you might have shared it with him anyway.

“People tell their barbers and hairstylists everything,” he said with a laugh. “Sometimes we hear things about people that we're not even interested in knowing. I guess people look at us like trusted messengers.”

Wilson is trying to capitalize on that trust with his clients in the fight against COVID-19. Over the next five weeks, his north Minneapolis barbershop, Wilson's Image Barbers and Stylists, will double as a vaccination clinic for customers and community members. It’s part of the Biden administration’s Shots at the Shop initiative, which aims to bring the vaccine to Black-owned barbershops and beauty salons across the country.

Barbers are some of the most trusted people in the Black community, Wilson said. They are good listeners, and customers listen to them, too. Organizers hope that partnering with barbers and stylists will help boost vaccination rates in neighborhoods that need it most. 

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North Minneapolis has lower vaccination rates than Hennepin County as a whole. And the latest figures from the state health department show COVID-19 cases are continuing to swell among Black Minnesotans.

Minnesota Health Department data show that 46 percent of the state’s Black population 15 and older has been vaccinated, compared to 61 percent of whites.

That’s why nurse Kelly Robinson decided to partner with Wilson’s barbershop for the vaccination effort. She said offering the shots at the business — a fixture on Broadway Avenue — takes out some of the guesswork among people who are still wondering where they can get vaccinated. And she wants to help curb the virus’ spread at a time when the delta variant becomes more of a concern. 

Robinson said she also chose Wilson because of his involvement in the Black community.

“We're just hoping to engage more of our young, Black, African American men to get the shot because that's where the deficit is in terms of vaccination,” said Robinson, president of the Twin Cities chapter of the group Black Nurses Rock.

One of the people who couldn’t be convinced is Mark Johnson, 27, who stopped by Wilson’s barbershop to get his haircut last week. He said he isn't worried about the virus because he believes his immune system is strong.

“I usually don't get sick, I don't go to bars, I don't be in large gatherings,” he said. “I don't think I need it."

But COVID-19 has seriously sickened even healthy people, and hesitancy toward the vaccine is a challenge that public health officials are trying to overcome. Even Wilson said he was skeptical of the vaccine at first. As an African American man, he was familiar with how Black people have been discriminated against in health care. When the vaccine became available, his mind kept turning to the notorious Tuskegee syphilis study.

“I wanted to know: Is this another experiment?” he said.

But as he learned more about the virus, and saw people of races all get sick — and eventually get the vaccine and respond well to it — Wilson said he felt more at ease.

“That's what kept my mind open to, well, maybe this isn't just something that's out here designed to kill off a certain segment of people,” he said.

This isn’t the first time Wilson has opened up his business for a public health campaign. For the past few years, Wilson's barbershop has served as a pop-up clinic where north side residents can check their cholesterol, blood pressure and body mass index.

These days, customers who get vaccinated receive a 50 percent discount on their haircuts. 

Rev. Victor Martinez, a pastor at New Generation Church and a Ward 5 City Council candidate, stands outside of the barbershop trying to bring more people inside. He's volunteering with the vaccination effort. Martinez said the incentives don’t seem to be enticing enough for some young folks to get the shot.

"They don't think they need it,” he said. “It's like they're neutral and then obviously you add the needle effect they're like, ‘Ah, I don't want a needle in my arm.' "

But Robinson, of Black Nurses Rock, said even a few vaccinations at the barbershop amount to a success in her mind.

“Even if we get one, that's one more life that we'll save,” she said.

The Shots at the Shop program at Wilson's Image Barbers and Stylists, 2124 W. Broadway Ave. in Minneapolis, will run for the next five weeks on Fridays and Saturdays. Organizers hope to expand it to other parts of the Twin Cities.