What It’s Like to Visit a Spa During the Pandemic

I had barely slept a full night in months, and my shoulders were permanently hunched…

What It’s Like to Visit a Spa During the Pandemic

I had barely slept a full night in months, and my shoulders were permanently hunched around my ears—perhaps the only reminder that I still had a body. (As for a face, forget it!)

To arrive at Rescue Spa, in Manhattan’s Flatiron district, I  took the half-empty subway in from Brooklyn for the first time since the advent of the coronavirus, a once-familiar routine now rendered uncanny, with masked commuters forgoing their usual bullish tactics and keeping a tentative distance from one another. Was this even present-day New York? I wondered as I made my way down a ghost town–like Broadway, passing branches of Equinox and WeWork, onetime citadels of aughties triumph that were, at least for now, standing disused like so many faded mom-and-pop shops. At the all-white, high-ceilinged Rescue, which had reopened in early July, masked employees treated a reduced customer load, in observation of social-distancing orders, and extra sanitary measures appeared to be in full effect. After having my temperature taken (a normal 98.6) and receiving a health questionnaire confirming that I hadn’t been in contact with a person ill with COVID and that I would continue to keep on high alert for symptoms, I sat down to receive a gentle, skilled manicure, given by a P.P.E.-wearing technician through a plexiglass panel with an opening at the bottom, the chair and table Cloroxed vigorously before and after my appointment. The setup—half bank-teller station and half glory hole—felt unfamiliar yet somehow reassuring, as did the sharp scent of cleaning products that permeated the manicure station. For my nail-polish shade, I selected Essie’s orangey-red Fifth Avenue, perhaps to remind myself of a fabled version of the city that seemed to have little to do with conditions on the ground. “People are so grateful they’re able to come in again,” Danuta Mieloch, Rescue’s founder, told me as I lay down on a treatment table swathed in pristine cream-­colored linens in one of the spa’s 14 private rooms. “Everyone is so anxious right now—when will this be over, how do I stay healthy, are we going to be okay?—and all of this affects not just your mood but your skin too.”

As we spoke, the masked and gloved Mieloch was administrating, with the sure but lulling motions of a true expert, Biologique Recherche’s exfoliating, hydrating P50 lotion to my forehead, eye area, and upper cheeks, as well as to my upper chest and neck. My nose and mouth, meanwhile, remained tucked beneath my mask. A mandatory prohibition on any treatment that requires the full uncovering of the face—whether it be lip piercing, mustache waxing, or a facial—had remained in place; and so, while some spas have decided to take facials off the menu completely, others have found creative twists on the service. (Caitlin Girouard, Governor Cuomo’s press secretary, stated in mid-­August that they “are continuing to monitor how and when higher-risk spa services like facials can safely resume.”) Since reopening, Haven Spa, in SoHo, has launched a service named, aptly, the 2020, in which clients can receive a treatment that edges around their face covering; and Rescue, too, has begun offering what the spa has been calling “targeted” treatments, such as the Eye Zone. (“Let your eyes do the talking while your mouth is covered!” the spa’s website cheerfully proclaims.)

On the verge of dozing off, I experienced wild snatches of half-dreams, my ensconced state seeming to reveal itself not as the opposite of quarantine but as its actual end point.

As Mieloch gave me a taste of Rescue’s most popular techniques to tighten and refresh the skin, my face covering remained firmly in place, a situation that struck me, hilariously, as a little pornographic. The mouth and nose seemed to gain an erogenous zone–like aura of the forbidden, not unlike, say, a burlesque dancer’s nipples, painstakingly concealed by tasseled pasties. “All we can do right now is our best,” Mieloch told me as she briskly massaged my jawline, carefully skirting my mask. While the spa was closed, Rescue estheticians had been consulting with clients virtually, walking them through skin-care routines to do at home. There was, however, Mieloch added, no replacement for an in-person meeting and hands-on contact: “To see an esthetician is, first of all, to take care of the heart,” she said. Apart from my husband and daughter, no other human being had touched or been touched by me in months, and there was something almost thrilling in having my corporeal self handled by a complete stranger, albeit one who was most certainly on the clock. (Could this be love? I wondered, nearly groaning as Mieloch’s oiled hands gave my aching neck a quick rubdown.) On my way out of the room, once again aware that I had a face and body, I dawdled for a moment in Rescue’s expansive, airy entrance hall, where the spa sells products to its clients. Here was blatant, seductive commerce, which in a metropolitan environment so often stands in for life, and which, for months, I had nearly forgotten about. Eyeing the goods on display, I felt suddenly flush with pleasure, if not necessarily with capital. A fleet of Byredo perfumes were arranged on one table, their pleasingly squat glass bottles promising transporting scents like Oud and Black Saffron. I lifted one of them to my nose; through my mask, I couldn’t smell a thing.