Lawrence City Commission to review new proposal to regulate massage businesses

photo by: Journal-World File Photo

Serenity Health Spa, 2201 W 25th St., Suite M, is pictured on June 5, 2018. The Lawrence City Commission on Tuesday will consider a new draft of an ordinance to regulate massage and other bodywork businesses as part of an effort to deter human trafficking. Serenity is one of three local massage parlors that federal indictments allege are fronts for illegal prostitution.

As part of an effort to deter human trafficking, the city may soon take on the responsibility of regulating the many massage businesses in Lawrence.

At its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission will consider a new draft of the ordinance to regulate massage and other bodywork businesses, which typically number more than 50.

The original draft, which was proposed in March 2017, was strongly opposed by a group of massage professionals, and the new version does away with several provisions. Those include provisions that allowed law enforcement to inspect business premises, banned businesses from operating overnight and required businesses to keep daily logs of services provided.

Assistant City Attorney Maria Garcia said that city staff worked with local massage professionals to revise the ordinance. Garcia said she thinks the new version meets the goals of the city and addresses concerns that the previous draft was too heavy-handed.

“I do think that this ordinance strikes a good balance between the goals of the city, and in particular law enforcement, and the bodywork community,” Garcia said. “We’ve had some really productive meetings with the bodywork community and listened to their concerns about our first draft and really took those into consideration in crafting a new ordinance that meets reasonable goals of each side.”

The ordinance still requires a criminal background check and certain education and examination requirements in order for massage professionals to obtain a license from the city.

Garcia said the city also worked with investigators from the Lawrence Police Department in revising the ordinance. She said that in addition to having a licensing system, the ordinance requires massage professionals to have an identification card that they must provide to law enforcement officers upon request.

The provisions that were removed from the current draft, according to a city staff memo to the commission, are as follows:

• A requirement that the business establishment register the business with the city clerk. The new draft requires only that the practitioner obtain a license.

• A requirement that businesses keep a client register that would keep track of client names, dates of service, etc.

• An hours of operation section stating that businesses could not operate between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.

• An operations section requiring doors to be unlocked during business hours, language requiring certain dress for practitioners, and language concerning cleanliness and sanitation.

• A jail sentence of up to six months for any violation of the article.

When asked if the revised version of the ordinance addresses the needs of law enforcement when it comes to preventing and investigating human trafficking and sex trafficking, police Sgt. Amy Rhoads referred questions regarding the ordinance to the city attorney’s office.

In a letter to the commission, the Lawrence Massage & Bodyworkers Alliance officially voiced support for the proposed ordinance. The letter states that many of the group’s recommendations were implemented and that “offensive and unnecessary” provisions were removed.

Holly Krebs, a representative of the group, said group members appreciated being able to provide input on the ordinance. In addition to massage, the ordinance encompasses other bodywork fields, such as structural integration and other manual therapies, and Krebs said she thinks that inclusion is more representative of the entire bodywork profession and will also help close loopholes in the ordinance.

“We are really appreciative of how much the city conferred with us and learned from us about the bodywork profession, so the regulations are now written in such a way that really reflects the professional reality,” Krebs said.

The ordinance has been a long time coming. Kansas is one of three states that does not regulate the massage industry, essentially leaving that responsibility to local governments.

In September 2016, Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson asked the city to create a licensing system, citing concerns that the lack of state and local regulations was drawing human trafficking activity to Lawrence. In a memo to the city, Branson provided 20 areas of regulation that he believed should be “strongly considered” for inclusion in the Lawrence ordinance. The proposed Lawrence ordinance includes the vast majority of those recommendations, but does not limit hours of operation; call for inspections of business premises or a right of immediate entry; or require that businesses (in addition to individual practitioners) apply for a license from the city.

Branson’s recommendations followed cases from 2015 and 2016, in which two Chinese nationals brought women to the United States with the promise of legitimate work but instead forced them to perform sex work at a Lawrence “massage” shop. Since then, there have been additional cases of businesses allegedly using massage as a guise for illegal activity. Federal indictments unsealed earlier this month allege that three Lawrence massage parlors were actually fronts for illegal prostitution enterprises that made millions of dollars.

The City Commission will convene at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St.


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