In an attempt to stop the proliferation of massage parlors, crack down on unlicensed massage therapists, and control prostitution, the Duluth City Council is considering changing the ordinance that regulates massage businesses.
The city proposes to limit the number of massage businesses to 10 within the city limits, raise their business license fee, and require owners to provide photo IDs, proof of state certification and fingerprints for massage therapists in their employ.
The council agreed at its Monday (May 7) work session to place the proposed changes on the agenda for its regular meeting next Monday (May 14). In the meantime city staff was directed to research whether the increased $1,000 regulatory license fee that would be required by the city reflects the cost of administering and enforcing the massage ordinance. The current fee is $50.
Perimeter Church Pastor Chip Sweney and two Duluth residents appealed for even tougher restrictions.
Presently, according to Duluth Police Det. Rick Thompson, there are about 20 massage therapy businesses in the city including nail salons that offer massages. Existing businesses prior to July 1, 2012, would be grandfathered until changing ownership or going out of business. Thompson told the council that the fee was appropriate.
More stringent background checks would be required of massage business owners who apply for city licenses, their partners and managers. Applicants would have to provide the original or a copy of the state license, two forms of photo ID and a set of fingerprints for each massage therapist in their employ. The Duluth Police Department would do the fingerprinting.
Independent massage therapists would be subject to the same requirements to obtain city business licenses. Spas would not be exempted.
City Attorney Steven Pereira explained that the proposed changes toughen a “moderate” massage ordinance adopted by the city in March 2011 that replaced a previous ordinance. The state regulates therapists, and the city regulates massage businesses, he said. Business owners, not therapists, would be cited for violations. The owners could have their business licenses suspended or revoked.
The city continues to have problems, Pereira said, and police attempting to enforce the ordinance have difficulty verifying the identities of massage therapists and determining if they are state certified (licensed to practice massage therapy). The proposed revisions would allow police officers conducting checks of massage businesses to review IDs and fingerprint the massage therapists. Often, Thompson said, the therapists claim they don’t have any ID.
Pereira had been asked by city staff to draft the changes and present them to the council. Proposed revisions include limiting the number of massage businesses in the city by population. No more than four such businesses would be allowed per 10,000 persons living within the Duluth city limits. Also, a 150-foot buffer from residential areas would be required. Massage business would only be allowed to locate in C-2 (commercial) districts.
Duluth resident Greg Stewart appealed to the council to stop the proliferation of massage parlors along Peachtree Industrial Boulevard and Pleasant Hill Road and the exploitation of Asian women forced to work as massage therapists. “They’re here illegally, they don’t speak the language, and they’re bring exploited,” Stewart said.”
“If you don’t enact an ordinance that’s tough enough to affect their pimps, it will just be a slap on the wrist, and it won’t help,” he said.
“I agree with what Greg is saying,” said Lynn Traynor, another resident supporting a tougher ordinance. She called Asian massage parlors “fronts for human trafficking and prostitution.”
“People are talking about this all over...they’re very concerned,” Traynor said. “It’s become a “big issue,” she said, “and they’re wondering why the city isn’t doing anything about it.”
Pastor Sweney said: “We as churches are very concerned about the issue of child sex trafficking taking place in Atlanta and North Atlanta.” Some of the girls lured by pimps to work in massage parlors are as young as 13 and 10, he said. “I hope Duluth will do something about it.”
Massage therapist Dusty Graham, who provided input on the ordinance adopted by the city last year, said the higher license fee would penalize legitimate massage therapists. “$1,000 is too much,” Graham said. He suggested the city draft separate ordinances regulating massage therapy businesses and punishing prostitution.
The changes under consideration include a redraft of the appeals procedure for massage therapy business license suspensions, revocations and denials. City council members decided not to create a Massage License Review Board but to keep the option open to do so later. The council would hear the appeals or appoint a hearing officer.