A Palo Alto proposal to require massage parlors and spas to keep detailed logs of clients has hit a nerve among local massage therapists who claim the proposal smacks of "Big Brother"-style intrusion.
More than 30 massage therapists attended a meeting Tuesday afternoon to hear about the changes, which city officials say would bring Palo Alto in compliance with state law. The proposed ordinance would raise the educational requirements for massage therapists, require them to purchase malpractice insurance and create a new category called "sole proprietor" for single-person massage businesses.
The most touchy aspect of the new ordinance is a requirement that massage establishments keep a written log that includes the date and hour of each service; the name, address and sex of each patron; the service provided; and the technician administering the service. Palo Alto police Sgt. April Wagner said the logs would remain at the massage establishments and would only be accessed by police during inspections and criminal investigations.
"It's for police official use only," Wagner said. "It's not something that would be published anywhere.
"It's to protect the people going there, to protect massage therapists themselves from false accusations."
Code Enforcement Officer Heather Johnson said other Peninsula cities, including Millbrae, San Mateo and Belmont, have similar requirements.
But this explanation failed to appease some audience members, including David Bena, who called it "Big Brother stuff." Others argued that their profession is being unfairly singled out by the city for onerous new regulations.
Donald Howard, a massage therapist who has been practicing in California since 1975, described the clause as "totally outrageous and absurd" and claimed that his clients would object to having their names submitted to the police for possible use in criminal investigations.
"It's an infringement on the privacy of clients," Howard said. "I personally work on clients that live in Atherton and Menlo Park that I'm sure would not appreciate having their names on a list and think it's just as absurd as I do."
Susan Nightingale, co-owner of Watercourse Way, said the new ordinance should require the police to go through the due process and get a court order before the client information is released. She encouraged staff to add the requirement for a court order to the new ordinance.
"I think the laws are in place to protect everyone," Nightingale said. "I don't see why we have to leave the step out."
Interim City Attorney Donald Larkin said the broader purpose of the massage-ordinance overhaul is to abolish the obsolete law currently on the books and to bring the city in compliance with Senate Bill 731, a 2008 law that requires message therapists and technicians to carry certification. Larkin said the state bill has given the city the motivation to update its own code.
Palo Alto's existing ordinance allows massages (defined as "any method of pressure on, or friction against, or stroking, kneading, rubbing, tapping, pounding, vibrating or stimulating the external parts of the human body with the hands or with the aid of any mechanical or electrical apparatus, or other appliances or devices, with or without such supplementary aids as rubbing alcohol, liniment, antiseptic, oil, powder, cream, lotion, ointment or other similar preparations") to take place only in "massage establishments." These establishments, under the existing definition, have more than one massage technician. The new ordinance would allow single-person establishments to legally function.
"We're missing a whole segment of the population of therapists trying to do work in Palo Alto," Wagner said. "They're trying to operate successful businesses, but we don't have certification of them.
"We're bringing those businesses into compliance."
Palo Alto officials plan to hold several more meetings and make further revisions to the massage ordinance before it's presented to the City Council in the fall. Larkin said the new ordinance would likely take effect in early 2012.