TAMPA — After a contentious public discussion, the City Council on Thursday pushed forward an ordinance aimed at curbing illicit massage parlors in what Council member Harry Cohen called an effort to target "an industry that is putting a blight on the city's reputation."
The ordinance reworks an old law regulating so-called bathhouses to require more stringent permitting of businesses offering baths to clients — a service frequently provided at massage parlors before illegal sex acts are performed. The city believes the ordinance will help fight human trafficking; illicit massage parlors are targeted by advocacy groups as hubs for trafficking of largely Chinese, Thai and Korean immigrants.
"This is one way some of these places have been operating to get around solicitation or prostitution," said assistant City Attorney Michael Schmid.
Thursday's meeting was the first reading of the ordinance. The council 5-0 voted to give its initial approval with Cohen, Guido Maniscalco, Charile Miranda, Mike Suarez and Luis Viera voting in favor. Council members Yvonne Yolie Capin and Frank Reddick weren't present. The council will hold a final vote on Jan. 11.
Protesters waved signs outside City Hall on Wednesday evening in opposition to the ordinance. They fear that women who choose to work in these businesses will suffer more than the businesses themselves.
Before Thursday's vote, many of those same protesters spoke during public comments. But the critics opposed it for different reasons.
Glen Kemp, owner of Passenger Massage on S Dale Mabry Highway, said he worried what the ordinance might mean for licensed therapists who offer hydrotherapy — using water for physical therapy and to treat ailments.
Kemp, who is also a past president of the Tampa Bay Chapter of the Florida Massage Therapists Association, acknowledged that the city is targeting illicit businesses. But what about his business?
"These things are horrible and deplorable ... But please, please don't lump us all together."
Sydney Eastman, a member of the Sex Workers Solidarity Network, complained that businesses on W Kennedy Boulevard under scrutiny by neighborhood groups and council have been excluded from the conversation. She believes it's a racial issue because most of those business are Asian-owned and operated.
"To me this is clear — it's not about targeting sex trafficking, this is simply a move by rich white landowners," Eastman said. "They must constantly prove to the police that their licenses are valid and their papers are good."
Resident Joe Manson spearheads the "Clean Up Kennedy" initiative and has spoken before the council about this issue in the past year. He said any suggestion that businesses are being unfairly singled out is a "total fantasy." He called them "mafia-controlled apparatuses."
Jae Passmore, a Hillsborough County Commission candidate who took part in the protest the day before, told the council the ordinance won't fight human trafficking. Instead, she said it might endanger those victims, as well as women who choose to engage in sex work.
"The road to hell is paved with good intentions," she said, "and so is City Hall sometimes."
Suarez said the city has no power to decriminalize sex work. He sees the ordinance as a step toward helping human trafficking victims.
"We cannot sit here and say this is going to solve human trafficking …," he said. "But I think this is a very unique way because now these businesses have to be regulated."
Christa Hernandez, a survivor of human trafficking and founder of a non-profit victim support organization, said she supports the ordinance and is working with the city to create a court diversion program for women who could be caught up in the new ordinance.
Contact Divya Kumar at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @divyadivyadivya