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)

Petaluma police seek new rules on massage businesses

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note their profession is now a widely accepted health care treatment, not a sexual act — object to what they say are outdated notions and inaccurate assumptions in the proposed ordinance.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

Williams said that requirement will be ditched in the final proposed ordinance, which likely will return to the City Council in February.

Drohan said her three Massage Envy locations employ more than 100 massage therapists and provide more than 5,000 massages a month.

She, other business owners and independent massage therapists said they welcome many of the new regulations, saying that they raise industry standards and can help separate legitimate businesses from illegal ones.

But some of what was proposed, they say, saddles law-abiding massage professionals with antiquated and presumptuous requirements that do little to stop prostitution.

Councilwoman Teresa Barrett raised concerns that the proposed ordinance misses the mark, if meant to curb the harm caused by prostitution.

Noting that the vast majority of massage business owners and providers are women, she said: "We don't cure one attack on women by making another one."

"I don't think it's a serious problem right now," she said of prostitution in Petaluma. "But we're trying to keep it from being a big problem."

Two people were arrested in Petaluma this fall on prostitution-related charges after they offered sexual services under the guise of a legitimate massage business, Williams said.

In the past several years, Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cloverdale, Healdsburg and Windsor have adopted some form of regulation governing massage businesses. Other cities, including San Rafael and San Francisco, have had regulations for years.

Petaluma massage therapist Wendy Smith received her state certification three decades ago. She said it's unclear whether she would be "grandfathered" in with any new ordinance or if she'd be forced to seek additional, costly recertification at a new school.

"Massage therapy now, from when I started 30 years ago, is an incredibly credible profession," she said. "It seems like what really needs to happen here is for more attention to be paid to the individuals and businesses that are not therapeutic massage businesses, that are involving some illegal activities. It's kind of obvious in a lot of situations."

The council asked the Police Department to reexamine the proposed requirements, consult with those in the profession and return with a new ordinance. Williams said two meetings have been scheduled with massage professionals to gather their input.

"We're not miles apart," he said. "The issues they raised are very resolvable.

"It's not simply to curb prostitution. A client who goes to somebody holding themselves out as a licensed and educated practitioner should have some level of confidence that's the case."

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