It’s an unfortunate reality that massage therapy is a largely misunderstood profession—and an even more unfortunate reality that illegal massage businesses are often used as a front for human trafficking or other criminal activities.

In November, in an effort to shut down human traffickers, San Francisco’s city supervisors passed an ordinance that amends the health code to make it more difficult for illegal massage businesses. However, some massage therapists have concerns about the effects the new rules may have on their legitimate massage establishments.

What’s in the Ordinance?

The new ordinance, passed on November 20 to go into effect January 1, 2019, revises the regulation of massage therapy businesses, including outcall businesses. It has several provisions, according to this summary from the City and County of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors’ website:

1) Authorizing the Director of Health … to access local, state, and federal criminal history information of permit applicants and permit holders;

2) Eliminating temporary massage practitioner permits;

3) Clarifying the administrative process by which permit applicants and permit holders may appeal a decision to deny, suspend, or revoke a permit;

4) Adding or revising massage establishment operating standards relating to vermin, employee areas, locked doors, residential use, and advertising;

5) Prohibiting a massage business from operating a massage school on the same premises as a massage establishment;

6) Establishing a massage establishment reinspection fee of $191 per hour;

7) Updating administrative and permit penalties;

8) Authorizing the imposition of a lien on a property that has contributed to a violation of Article 29 of the Health Code … to collect unpaid administrative penalties, enforcement costs, fines, interest, and attorneys’ fees;

9) Authorizing the City Attorney to institute civil proceedings for injunctive and monetary relief for violations of Article 29;

10) Declaring violations of select provisions of Article 29 to be public nuisances; and

11) Discontinuing the acceptance of applications for massage practitioner permits effective January 1, 2019. [Practitioner permits will then be handled by the state.]

Article 29 of the health code covers the licensing and regulation of massage practitioners and businesses. The new ordinance amends Article 29 to give the city greater power to revoke permits and shut down illegal massage establishments—for example, an establishment’s permit can now be suspended or revoked if a city inspector arrives and finds the exterior door locked or is otherwise prevented from doing his or her job. It also increases many of the fines and penalties outlined in Article 29, including the fee for a re-inspection after a violation.

While it remains to be seen how effectively the city will be able to enforce the new rules, some of the requirements could feasibly create challenges—and additional expenses—for legitimate massage practitioners.

Land Use and Licensing

Land use issues are one of the potential problems small business owners, including owners of massage establishments, may face. To operate a massage therapy business in many areas in San Francisco, an owner must apply for conditional use—meaning the specific use of the property must be approved by the city, typically involving a public hearing. A property that has been approved for one use must be re-approved when sold to a new owner, even if the same type of business will exist there.

On top of the existing conditional use rules, the new ordinance adds provisions to the health code that a business’s permit expires when the business is sold, meaning whoever buys a business will have to go through the permitting process again.

Issues with Infrastructure

The ordinance also adds rules concerning the space in which a massage business is located. It requires applicants for a massage establishment permit to, in addition to previous requirements, submit a floor plan of the business showing treatment locations and employees-only areas.

It also adds more requirements for hygiene and pest control, and stipulates that treatment room doors may not have locks on them. With exceptions for sole practitioners, the exterior doors of businesses will now be required to remain unlocked while the business is open.

No one can reside on the premises, and the new ordinance adds a list of items, such as raw grocery items and sleepwear, that are considered evidence of residential use.

The current version of Article 29 already contains language prohibiting massage services at night, between 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m.; the new ordinance adds that no customers or non-employees may be on the premises during that period of time.

It also bars businesses from advertising illegal massage services, and prohibits operating a massage school on the premises of a massage business.

Fighting Illegal Massage “Parlors”

Candace Combs, CMT, owns In-Symmetry Spa in San Francisco and has been in business for 17 years. While she, like most legitimate massage therapists, cares about dealing with the issue of human trafficking, she is also concerned about the effect legislation like this has on small businesses in general—and on female entrepreneurs in particular, since the massage industry has a high percentage of female therapists.

“There’s a lot of illicit parlors; they’re all over San Francisco,” Combs told MASSAGE Magazine. “the massage community, more than any other community, wants to see it all shut down. No one wants human trafficking.”

Despite the growth of her business, Combs has been unwilling to add more locations in San Francisco due to the expense and time involved.

“We franchise, because I can’t grow here,” she said. “I’d have to have two million dollars in order to open a second location.” She also believes that, due to the land-use issue, she won’t be able to sell her business when it’s time to move on.

In addition to startup expenses, it can take months, Combs said, for a new business owner to actually begin operation, during which time the owner must pay rent on a space that isn’t yet generating income. Most small-business owners can’t afford to wait that long.

Katy Tang

Katy Tang

MASSAGE Magazine reached out to Katy Tang, who was appointed and then elected to the board of supervisors in 2013 and sponsored the new ordinance, with some of these concerns. (Other San Francisco city government officials were contacted, but none were willing to offer their comments about this legislation.)

“I have no idea what the legislation is doing to harm legitimate massage practitioners,” Tang said. “Basically, I see it as a land use issue.”

She said that the ordinance mostly clarifies existing rules, and helps ensure a business is actually practicing the business for which it is permitted.

MASSAGE Magazine will continue to update this story with any new developments.

About the Author

Allison M. Payne is the associate editor of MASSAGE Magazine and Chiropractic Economics.