Tampa okays ordinance regulating massage parlors through bathing permits

The Tampa group "Clean Up Kennedy" protests massage parlors on W Kennedy Boulevard in August. [Courtesy of Clean Up Kennedy]
The Tampa group "Clean Up Kennedy" protests massage parlors on W Kennedy Boulevard in August. [Courtesy of Clean Up Kennedy]
Published January 11
Updated January 11

TAMPA — The City Council voted unanimously with one member absent Thursday morning to adopt a revised bathhouse ordinance from the 1980s aimed at cracking down on illicit services offered in massage parlors.

The measure was criticized as oppressive and hailed as a measure to help the city fight human trafficking, believed to be taking place at some of these businesses.

During public comment, groups that had protested the ordinance outside City Hall pleaded with council members to delay passing the ordinance until they came up with a measure they believed would offer better protection for the women who work at the parlors.

"At no point in history has overpolicing ever led to a solution," said Angel D’Angelo, who attended a protest of the ordinance over the weekend.

Julie Solace of the Sex Worker Solidarity Network said she worries that crackdowns on massage parlors will lead to the arrest of sex workers whose names will be tarred for life in public records.

But city officials told the group they are working with other agencies to make sure women would be protected.

"This ordinance has been crafted as narrowly as possible so not to overregulate," said Assistant City Attorney Mike Schmid, who wrote the measure. "And businesses choose to participate voluntarily."

The city’s effort is based on modifying a 1980s-era ordinance passed to crack down on bathhouses at the height of the AIDS epidemic. The ordinance would establish a permit application process for massage parlors that offer bathing, a common precursor to sex acts, and require them to follow more stringent regulations about posting signage and closing earlier.

Councilman Luis Viera said State Attorney Andrew Warren has assured him the state is not interested in prosecuting victims of trafficking.

"I see no causal link between this (ordinance) and the gross injustices being alleged," Viera said.

Sydney Eastman, an organizer with the Sex Worker Solidarity Network, questioned what activity the ordinance is targeting.

"If you want to abolish prostitution, let’s just say that’s what we’re doing," she told the City Council.

Councilman Mike Suarez said the city has been working with community groups to ensure victims of trafficking have a safety net.

Dottie Groover Skipper, Florida Anti-Trafficking Coordinator for the Salvation Army, said she has been working with the state and county to create a diversion court for women who may be working in prostitution, as well as a "Johns school" to educate those arrested for soliciting prostitution.

"I think we’re all on the same page here," Groover Skipper said to members of the sex worker network. "It will not criminalize the women."

She said her organization wanted to have solutions in place before the crackdown on parlors began, but groups picketing the businesses and trying to shut them would not agree to slow their pace.

Joe Manson, who led one of those groups, welcomed the passage of the ordinance and said his organization — Clean Up Kennedy — will continue to pressure businesses and eventually expand to "Clean Up Tampa."

"I want people to look at the city and know that if you’re in the business of exploitation, you’re not welcome here," Manson said.

Once the new ordinance takes effect, the penalty for failing to operate a bath house without a permit will be a fine of up to $500 and 60 days in jail.

Schmid, the assistant city attorney, said it’s possible some businesses will skirt the ordinance by stopping bathing but still offering illicit services.

"In which case, we’ll be back in front of City Council," he said. "This is not going to solve the issue of human trafficking, but it’s a first step."

Contact Divya Kumar at [email protected] Follow @divyadivyadivya.

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Contact Divya Kumar at [email protected] Follow @divyadivyadivya.

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