Health & Fitness

Massage therapy in a pandemic

A treatment session at Hemmingways Nairobi Spa
A treatment session at Hemmingways Nairobi Spa. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG 

On a normal Friday, I would be the fifth or sixth client to enter the Hemingways Spa in Nairobi. It is 10 am and I am the first person looking to have a much-needed massage.

Outside the luxury hotel’s foyer, I meet a masked concierge. He nods, acknowledging my presence, motions me to sanitise my hands, checks my temperature, and directs me to the spa.

Esther Wanjiku, the spa manager, meets me at the entrance. I can only assume she is smiling behind her mask, and the well-arranged flowers are smelling of an exotic island retreat.

The last time I was at a spa, the masseuse was wearing deep-red lipstick and a smile that made me smile, and the reception was heavy with frangipani and jasmine scent. But since the masks employees wear shroud smiles and scents, the hand gestures have been alternatives to expressing warmth and welcome.

Esther ushers me to a socially-distanced consultation room. It has safety notices, more sanitiser gels and wipes, common interior décor additions in public spaces.


A client gets a facial at the Aromatics Spa on Manyani East Road.

A client gets a facial at the Aromatics Spa on Manyani East Road. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

She explains the new rules of engagement for a spa treatment considered quite intimate especially in this Covid-19 pandemic: I should maintain social distance and have my mask on at all times.

“Even during the massage?” I ask. “Yes, except when your back is being massaged,” she responds.

The wellness sector eager to get back to business after three months of closure has devised a new set of plans to prioritise the health and safety of both staff and clients. They are using hospital- grade cleaning products, ensuring housekeepers conspicuously wipe down from doorknobs to counters.

To ensure social distancing, spa treatments are spaced out by hours to allow cleaning and disinfection of the rooms which can only be used by one person at a time. In some spas, couples massages are done in different rooms while others have secluded them. Couples have their own welcome area, separate changing rooms, and shower areas. “Therapists are also tested for Covid-19 and they shower immediately after reporting to work,” Esther says.

At the spa, there is no physical menu. “Clients pick their preferred spa treatment from the website,” she says.

I log onto their website and settle for the ‘Tropical Dusk’ aromatherapy massage. Magazines and other coffee table book favourites are nowhere in sight, so I sit with my thoughts and wait.

An Aromatics Spa staffer sanitising a relaxing area on Manyani East Road.

An Aromatics Spa staffer sanitising a relaxing area on Manyani East Road. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Calvin Odhiambo, my masseur walks in. Instinctively, I stretch my hand to greet him, only to remember that handshakes are not allowed. Embarrassed, I put my hand back and timidly walk to the shower. Showering is mandatory. Don’t be smart. They will ascertain that you have showered!

After my shower, I head into the steam room. Normally, I would sit down but I decided to stand. With a temperature of around 110 degrees, I bet the coronavirus cannot survive here. Fifteen minutes later, I make my way to the massage room.

Calvin and I keep our masks on, except when my face is down. Chitchat is discouraged. An hour later, he finishes kneading my body, relieving the tight muscles and anxiety.

At Villa Rosa Kempinski spa, masked staff, temperature checks, and touchless sanitisation stand greet me at the reception. Spa treatments are accessible via QR code, just like food. “We’ve made changes to cut out the risk of infection. Aside from masks, clients can request their therapists to wear gloves. We have also rearranged the space to fit social distancing requirements and retrained staff,” says Stella Muthoni, the Kempinski spa manager.

Here, only minimal functional amenities are provided. The jacuzzi usage is limited to 30 minutes, with the chlorine in the water maintained at 1 to 3mg/L with a pH range of 6.8 to 7.4.

Despite the opening of some spas, some people are understandably hesitant to book appointments. Ravi Thatthi, the Aromatic Spa owner says besides sterilising using UV technology, they allow a client to inspect the room.

“This is to enable them to relax and inspire trust,” Ravi says.