Spa owners say proposed regulations would treat them more like the sex parlors that were shut down 20 years ago
by Elisabeth Traugott
At 7 a.m. on Dec. 3, 1976, the Palo Alto Police Department and the District Attorney's Office made state history when they systematically began raiding and shutting down message parlors and nude dance studios in town.
Seventeen parlors, with names like The Streaker, The Foxy Lady and the Green Door, were shut down. Most of them lined El Camino Real. Most of them were fronts for houses of prostitution.
More than 100 "masseuses" were put out of business that day. About two dozen of these masseuses, police later discovered, were licensed prostitutes in Nevada.
The police raid that was authorized by the state's newly approved Red Light Abatement Act, and Palo Alto was the first to use the "red light" law. Many other cities would follow.
Twenty years later, Palo Alto police are once again concerned about illegal masseuses returning to town and are working on a proposed new ordinance that would put more muscle into the city's regulations over message establishments. But this time, the city is facing tense opposition from the many legitimate massage therapists and health spas that now operate in town.
The proposal would require massage therapists to be photographed and fingerprinted, consent to medical examinations, and to prove, among other things, that they keep their clothes on, don't display condoms or other "sexual devices" and have no criminal record.
Sue Nightingale, co-owner of Watercourse Way at High Street and Addison Avenue, believes Palo Alto officials are "on the wrong track" with the proposed new law. She said she finds "the implication that somehow something illegal is going on . . . insulting".
Supporters see the plan, currently in draft form, as a way to prevent businesses that trade in the more salacious pleasures of the flesh from infiltrating Palo Alto's borders.
According to city and police officials, the law has been drafted to keep Palo Alto's code on par with those of surrounding cities, many of which have recently instituted new licensing standards for massage therapists.
"We have a concern that if we don't do something similar, it would make Palo Alto a little bit easier for those illegitimate operations," said Lynne Johnson, assistant chief of police. "We firmly believe that the greater majority are totally legitimate, and provide a needed service, but we need to protect the entire community."
Nightingale thinks Watercourse Way, one of several massage establishments in Palo Alto along with Body Kneads on San Antonio Road and Body Therapy on California Avenue, doesn't need the city to enforce competency standards.
"Anyone who is bogus wouldn't apply here, and we would know from their massage" if they were, she said. Nightingale has been in business for more than 17 years, offering a wide range of body treatments, including massage.
Furthermore, she is concerned over what the ordinance--what she calls "an anti-prostitution measure"--implies. The fact that it has a clause disallowing massage in a sauna or other steamy room means practitioners at her establishment wouldn't be able to perform massage in conjunction with spa treatments, such as detoxification or exfoliation, which involve "sweating" and make up "the fastest growing part of our business."
Under current zoning laws, which were passed 20 years ago, massage businesses are prohibited from setting up shop within 1,200 feet of another massage establishment or 250 feet from any school or residential district. A license can be granted to a prospective practitioner if they can show they have had at least 70 hours of instruction or at least 500 hours of professional experience.
The proposed ordinance will require massage therapists to either possess a certificate stating they have had at least 300 hours of training from a recognized school, or 200 hours plus 100 hours of hands-on training. They must then pass a practical exam, and either a written or oral exam given by a health practitioner. A grandfather clause would be put in effect for practitioners already licensed.
The proposed ordinance would still restrict massage establishments to commercial areas.
"Just because what we have has worked to date doesn't mean it's going to keep on working," said Judy Glaes, the code enforcement officer who handles massage therapist licensing for the Police Department.
Glaes said that just presenting the police with a certificate from a massage school isn't enough. "There are schools that we know do have courses and people go and take them, but some of those schools also sell (certificates) and you can't tell by looking" at them.
The ordinance is expected to be sent to the City Council's Policy and Services subcommittee for consideration by the end of the year. Many of the massage community's complaints, including its dismay over restricting massage to tables only, will be taken into consideration, said Senior Assistant City Attorney Bill Mayfield.
Lucia Miracchi, a licensed massage instructor and co-owner of Body Therapy, said that while she feels the "language is offensive" in the legislation, the city's "intentions are very good. They are really trying to set regulations without doing damage to the existing businesses."
Massage "is not just pushing muscles and bones around; it is a whole sensitivity," Miracchi said. Massage therapists, "through their presence and with their sensitivity of touch, allow the client to release the stress, to open themselves up to their own healing energies . . . That takes training."
For that reason she supports the 300-hour training standard, noting that national certification requires 500 hours. But, she said, "We don't want to be lumped into laws that are trying to prevent prostitution."
Los Altos' 3-year-old ordinance, which is very similar to the one proposed for Palo Alto, has been "very successful," said Noreen Sorg, a crime prevention officer with the Los Altos police.
"It was a business that was not regulated, and we had a lot of people who weren't qualified," she said. "I think that if you get a good reputation for massage, then it's the businesses that benefit."
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