Duluth soon could adopt new licensing requirements designed to ensure local massage parlors are providing said therapy, rather than serving as fronts for illegal activities.
The proposed ordinance changes come in the wake of a crackdown that resulted in the recent closure of three Twin Ports massage parlors and the prosecution of the couple that owned them - Matthew Shykes and Shuangyan Yang - on charges of alleged sex trafficking and racketeering. The pair ran Shuangyan's Spa and Better Massage in Duluth, as well as Superior Soothing Massage in Superior.
"It's unfortunate it took an event like this to happen to bring this issue to light," said Mel Alvar, a Safe Harbor Northeast Minnesota navigator. But she called the enhanced rules proposed for local massage parlors "a good first step."
Massage therapists working in Duluth will need to be licensed, and the city will require them to provide documentation demonstrating that they have successfully completed at least 500 hours of certified therapeutic-massage training. Massage parlor owners and therapists also would be subject to criminal background checks and would be required to disclose if they had ever been the subject of a law enforcement investigation.
This information could have flagged Shykes and Yang, who opened a fourth massage parlor in Tennessee in 2018, where undercover officers previously discovered workers offering sexual services, according to a criminal complaint.
Alvar noted that even a few bad actors can unfairly tarnish the reputation of legitimate businesses, so holding the industry to high standards makes good sense.
"I think this is good for everyone, and especially for the massage therapists who do operate legitimately, because they hold themselves to very high standards as part of their ethics," she said.
City officials did not respond to repeated requests Wednesday for comment on the proposed ordinance change.
Under the proposed ordinance, massage therapists would need to disclose their citizenship status and provide the city with proof of identity.
Alvar applauded the city's efforts to keep better tabs on people who work at massage parlors in light of the worker exploitation that often occurs in illegitimate establishments.
"We see a lot of cross-over between sex trafficking and labor trafficking, and massage parlors are one of the most common places where that happens," said Alvar, noting that victimized employees sometimes see nowhere to turn.
"Undocumented people can be very easy to take advantage of, especially if there aren't ordinances in place with licensing requirements or certificates that have to be presented and things like that," she said.
The criminal complaint against Shykes and Yang indicated the couple staffed their parlors with Asian workers who were recruited from California and were made to work up to 12 hours per day six or seven days a week. These workers were charged rent to share a room in the couple's townhome.
Alvar explained that employers engaged in exploitation often benefit from creating a sense of worker isolation.
"That's absolutely common across the board when traffickers want to gain the most control," she said.
Duluth isn't the first city in the area to try to rein in illicit massage parlor operations since the recent arrest of Shykes and Yang. On April 2, the Hermantown City Council placed a six-month moratorium on any new adult massage parlors or health clubs. The moratorium was enacted so as to provide time for city staff to consider new regulations.
Anyone who is a victim of sex trafficking or who desires to receive training to better fight this type of activity can contact Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault at 218-726-1442.