Milwaukee Gee’s Barbershop owner sets up COVID vaccine clinic site



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Sylvia Holmes got to Gee’s Clippers early on Saturday to beat the rush.

When she saw that the health professionals from Hayat Pharmacy were still getting ready, she decided to get in a barber chair first.

And then, in what some would consider the unlikeliest of places, she was getting the COVID-19 vaccine.  

“I figured if I’m getting the vaccination, I might as well get my haircut while I waited,” Holmes said. “You can participate in some self-care and health care at the same time.” 

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Sylvia Holmes, 46, left, receives a COVID-19 vaccination from pharmacist Dimmy Sokhial of Hayat Pharmacy on Saturday, March 27, 2021, at Gee’s Clippers, 2200 N. King Drive in Milwaukee. “It’s a sense of relief,” Holmes said. (Photo: Angela Peterson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Nearly 30 people came to Gee’s Clippers on North King Drive on Saturday for their first coronavirus vaccination. They’ll be able to get their second shot at the barbershop in a few weeks. For the next three weeks, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., residents can sign up and get COVID-19 vaccinations at Gee’s on Saturdays.

People who get their shots at Gee’s on upcoming Saturdays will set up appointments for their second shots at a Hayat Pharmacy a few weeks later.  

Gaulien “Gee” Smith, the owner of Gee’s Clippers, not only helped bring the vaccine to his neighborhood, his support of getting the vaccine helped bring people who may have been skeptical inside to learn more.  

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“He’s someone who we know. He’s someone who’s been in the community for so long and a lot of us look up to him for all that he’s doing in the community,” Holmes said, adding she heard about the barbershop vaccinations from Smith himself. “I think he’ll have a big hand in getting more of us out.” 

Smith understands why some in the Black community might feel apprehensive about getting the vaccination, but he hopes he can convince them to trust the medicine. 

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People wait in an area of Gee’s Clippers after receiving COVID-19 vaccinations Saturday, March 27, 2021, at Gee’s Clippers, 2200 N. King Drive, Milwaukee. (Photo: Angela Peterson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

“We’ve got to trust the professionals and I’m right here in the community trying to do my part to bridge that gap with the medical professionals and the community,” Smith said. 

A little more than a year ago, Smith opened up Gee’s MKE Wellness Center in partnership with Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield. The center turned the back of the barbershop into a clinic where people can get their blood pressure, glucose level and diabetes checked, along with testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.  

“We feel there’s a huge health disparity among African Americans, mainly African American men, because they’re not really taking care of themselves like they should,” Smith said. “I know guys tend to have a better relationship with their barber than they do with their doctor.” 

Smith’s motivation to convince other people to check on themselves comes from personal experience.  

“My father passed away from a totally preventable illness, colon cancer. He just never got a colonoscopy,” Smith said. “He never went to the doctor, that just wasn’t him. He died at 62 years old. Three of his brothers died of totally preventable illnesses between the ages of 55 and 62.” 

By having the barbershop become a vaccination site, Smith hopes it can “get America back to some type of normalcy, and we have to do that by getting vaccinated.” 

“There’s two businesses in the urban community that can truly change the trajectory of that community and that’s the African American church and the barbershop,” Smith said. “I’m trying to do my part.”  

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Originally a bank vault, this area of Gee’s Clippers serves as the check-in and registering area for people arriving for COVID-19 vaccinations Saturday, March 27, 2021, at Gee’s Clippers, 2200 N. King Drive, Milwaukee. (Photo: Angela Peterson/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

‘It’s a safe space’

Realtor Toni Spencer was skeptical of the vaccine but came Saturday and got vaccinated to protect herself, family and clients.  

“You’ve got to suck it up and do what you have to do,” Spencer said. “If that means taking it for my family, for my clients, because my clients are my community … if I have to take it for them then yeah, I’ll do it.” 

Spencer said Gee’s Clippers is a “pillar of the community” and Smith’s positive reputation helped make patrons feel comfortable with getting the vaccine at his barbershop.  

“It’s a safe space, that’s exactly what it’s meant to do,” Spencer said. “We’re comfortable with Gee, we’re comfortable with his environment. We know he’s here for us and so what better place to do it than where we are? You’ve got to come to the people, not make the people come to you.” 

Adiah Elim, a senior at Milwaukee High School of the Arts, got the vaccine in hopes of going back to school. 

“I don’t do great sitting at home,” Elim said. “I can’t do my work at home. I can’t focus right because then I’m on my phone, then I’m watching TV and then I’m interested in something else.” 

Elim said several members of her extended family and her “church family” have died from the coronavirus and she felt relieved after she got her first shot.  

“Now I can go back to school,” Elim said. “Maybe this world can get back to what it used to be. As of right now, I’m tired of it. I’m tired of being at home. I want to go out. I want to go to the movies. I want to go to the mall. I want to go to the waterpark. I want to go everywhere.” 

Barbershops are often the scene of debates about sports, politics and life lessons, while getting a fade, line-up or whatever else a person wants done to their hair.  

Smith said barbershops are places for memories and this will be part of that.  

“This will be something to be talked about and remembered for ages,” Smith said. “Not just the pandemic but getting a vaccine in a barbershop. In a barbershop, not a doctor’s office, in a barbershop.” 

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