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Hillsborough to regulate massage parlors in crackdown on prostitution

Under the new law, the businesses need a permit to operate. They must background-check all employees and keep a record of all customers for up to two years.
The Tampa group "Clean Up Kennedy" protests massage parlors on W Kennedy Boulevard in August. Hillsborough County commissioners on Wednesday followed the city of Tampa in adopting an ordinance to regulate parlors and bathhouses. [Courtesy of Clean Up Kennedy]
Published Aug. 15, 2018
Updated Aug. 15, 2018

TAMPA – Hillsborough County has followed the city of Tampa in cracking down on illicit services like prostitution by moving to regulate massage parlors and bathhouses.

County commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to adopt a law restricting the operations of massage and bathhouse businesses, a move they said would help combat human trafficking.

If Tampa's experience is any guide, the county may need manpower to enforce the new ordinance. Since the city passed its law in January, just one businesses has applied for a permit among the 21 the city advised to do so.

The county's new law requires massage and bathhouse businesses to conduct background checks on all employees and keep a record of all customers for up to two years.

Workers who give massages or baths must wear scrubs or similar modest medical uniforms and the businesses cannot operate between midnight and 5 a.m.

Bathhouses will be prohibited from setting aside individual cubicles or areas for private massages or baths. The genitals of customers must be covered by towels or bathing wear when in the presence of a masseuse.

The law also places responsibility on workers to report any unlawful activity and on landlords to ensure the businesses they lease to have proper permits.

"It's really going to protect our citizens," said Commission Chairman Sandy Murman. "A lot of activity of human trafficking comes from these bathhouses."

Tampa's law was passed at the urging of citizens group Clean Up Kennedy, which lobbied for a crackdown on a cluster of massage parlors that it said were creating a blight along W Kennedy Boulevard.

The Tampa Police Department is investigating whether one massage parlor, the Lucky Penny Spa Massage on Gandy Boulevard, violated the new law. A woman was arrested there as part of an undercover operation, accused of agreeing to perform a sex act for money during a massage.

The business's failure to secure a permit has been referred to the city attorney for review.

It may be a good sign that businesses aren't lining up to apply for the new permits, said Tampa police spokesman Stephen Hegarty.

"What that tells us, along with undercover visits, is it's possible that a lot of businesses are saying, 'Forget it. We're not in the business anymore,'" Hegarty said.

Hillsborough's new ordinance will be enforced by the county's code enforcement department and focuses on penalizing owners and landlords rather than workers, said Assistant County Attorney Paul Johnston.

This approach will help potential victims of human trafficking, Johnston said. The Human Trafficking Resource Center ranked Florida, the third most-populous state, at No. 2 for human trafficking activity.

"You got a woman who was conned into coming here," Johnston said. "She doesn't speak the language and she gets charged with a crime for doing what her bosses told her to."

Code enforcement can levy fines of up to $1,000 per violation for each day a violation occurs.

No members of the public spoke for or against the new county law, which will take effect after it is transmitted to the state and after the county sets permit fees to cover the cost of enforcement.