The Duluth City Council continued to revise an ordinance governing local massage therapy businesses this week, with an eye toward making it tougher for sex traffickers to masquerade as massage parlors.
The newly massaged ordinance should be ready for a vote when councilors next meet May 28. The latest amendment this week places more scrutiny on the owners and managers of massage establishments, rather than focusing primarily on the practitioners employed by these businesses.
The changes were proposed by 1st District Councilor Gary Anderson who advocated for the shift of focus because, as he put it: "The purpose of this ordinance is to address sex trafficking in our community and to make it harder for people to engage in that."
In March, three Twin Ports massage parlors were busted and shut down as alleged fronts that offered their clientele sexual services. The couple that owned all of them subsequently has been charged with sex trafficking and racketeering.
"It was the work of the Duluth Police Department that really got us going on this ordinance, so I'm really grateful to Chief (Mike) Tusken and his officers," Anderson said.
"Sex trafficking is real, and it's real in our community," he said. "With these updates to the ordinance, the police department feels that they will be better equipped to do effective background checks and to hold sex traffickers accountable and hopefully stop them before they even start trying to set up that kind of business in our community."
But Anne Katoch, who has owned and operated a licensed massage therapy business in Duluth since 2002, said she was shocked when she first read through the proposed ordinance, which was modeled after one adopted by the city of Blaine, Minn. She said the policy focused to a greater extent on the practitioners delivering services to clients, rather than the people who own and operate these businesses.
"There was a serious double standard and a serious lack of equity. It seemed that the greater burden would be placed on therapists, which is particularly disturbing, considering the power dynamics of human trafficking." Katoch said.
She called for establishment owners and managers to undergo background checks just at deep as those required of their employees.
As originally written, Katoch said: "Establishment managers would be asked to list any crimes for which they've been convicted, whereas your therapist applicant would have to list all their arrests and charges, even those that never resulted in conviction. They would also have to list all city code violations," including infractions as minor as a barking dog citation.
Katoch urged councilors to: "Do your part to ensure the public good by holding establishment owners to the same stringent, if invasive, level of disclosure as their employees, especially considering the power dynamics of human trafficking."
Anderson said Katoch and other professional massage therapists in the community provided thoughtful and useful input that has served to strengthen the proposed ordinance. The amended ordinance is expected to go to a vote May 28. If approved, it would take effect 30 days later.
"I know that as a councilor I count on constituents to help educate me and to push me and to guide me and to educate me," said Anderson, praising Katoch for her work on the proposed ordinance.
Anderson said said he's eager to see the revised ordinance approved, providing local law enforcement with an additional tool to use against sex trafficking as soon as possible.
But he plans to seek one additional tweak once it's adopted. Right now, the licensing of massage therapy businesses is regulated under a section of the code titled "Amusements." Anderson contends that doesn't treat massage practitioners with the respect they deserve. Anderson said he'll likely propose the ordinance be placed under a new, more appropriate chapter heading - maybe something like "Alternative Health."