TAMPA — City Council members Thursday voted to look into prohibiting massage parlors from staying open 24 hours a day or having their employees live on the premises, often in a room with mattresses on the floor.
Both practices — along with open offers for prostitution — are characteristic of massage parlors that operate as brothels and facilitate human trafficking, often of women from Asia, according to officials.
Prostitution is illegal, and if police make enough cases at a massage parlor, the business can be brought before the city's Public Nuisance Abatement Board, which can place operating restrictions on it.
But expanding Tampa's business regulations to address massage parlors could help "eliminate some of the business practices that are conducive to that illegal behavior and that's why we think this will be an effective tool," assistant city attorney Rebecca Kert told council members.
"I'm happy to see that we're doubling up the efforts and putting more emphasis on this issue," council member Lisa Montelione said. "There is an underground that exists that most of us just aren't aware of. It's very sad."
The proposed rules are expected to come back to the council Nov. 1.
It's not known how many massage parlors operate in Tampa, but the council's action comes amid a state investigation of hundreds of people with Florida massage therapy licenses.
Two weeks ago, state authorities suspended the licenses of 81 massage therapists who officials said paid $10,000 to $15,000 to an employee of a massage school for phony transcripts.
Officials said the license suspensions are meant to chip away at the larger problem of human trafficking, which is the exploitation of people forced into prostitution and pornography, servitude and debt bondage.
Florida officials say about 18,000 to 50,000 people are trafficked into the United States each year, with Florida being a top destination.