Petaluma police seek new rules on massage businesses

  • Massage therapy student Desiree Bowen works practices chair massage on fellow student Jessica Weaver at the National Holistic Institute on Friday, December 7, 2012. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Massage therapists in Petaluma may have wondered what decade they were in following discussion of a proposed ordinance regulating their profession.

Police Chief Pat Williams presented the proposed new ordinance to the City Council this week, noting that occasional investigations have exposed prostitution operations masquerading as legitimate massage businesses.

But massage therapists and business operators — who note their profession is now a widely accepted health care treatment, not a sexual act — object to what they say are outdated notions and inaccurate assumptions in the proposed ordinance.

The initial wording used language like "massage workers," made references to opaque clothing and in existing zoning codes lumps massage businesses in with pawn shops, tattoo parlors, bars and head shops.

"Let's call a spade a spade and clearly separate the therapeutic massage professional from the sex industry," said certified massage therapist Shannon Leslie, who operates Better Body Massage in Petaluma.

Tiahna Skye of National Holistic Institute told the council that therapists welcome regulations that highlight the professional nature of their field, but they want the distinction made clear that they are not sex workers and should not be compared to them.

The ordinance would require state or city licensing of massage providers and business owners, restrict hours of operations and allow authorities to inspect businesses. Most massage professionals support regulations that promote their educational and professional standards.

But the ordinance, as initially proposed, also would force therapists to submit a doctor's certificate stating that within 30 days they have "been examined and found to be free from any contagious and/or communicable disease capable of being transmitted" by massage.

"It's really actually very insulting to read that," said Gina Drohan, who owns three Massage Envy franchises in Sonoma and Napa counties.

"I'm curious what exactly the diseases are of concern," Leslie said. "I'd like to remind the council that massage therapists who provide therapeutic massage are health care professionals. No doctors, nurses, medical assistants nor physical therapists are required to receive such an exam before practicing their chosen careers. Why would massage therapists be asked to?"

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