Illegal massages prompt crackdown in San Mateo County

In an effort to block prostitutes from operating under the guise of a legitimate massage business, officials in San Mateo County are considering imposing new limits on the establishments and for the first time requiring them to obtain a local license.

The proposed reforms, which are being considered by San Mateo County and San Carlos, also could mandate that massage technicians not wear “provocative” or “transparent” attire and prohibit the touching of genitals and breasts, Sheriff’s Office Lt. Ray Lunny said. The county also is considering establishing operating hours of 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The ordinance “addresses concerns raised by ongoing illegal activities at certain massage establishments in residential areas, while recognizing the rights of professional massage establishments,” Sheriff Greg Munks wrote in a staff report.

In February, Shujuan Liu was arrested on suspicion of prostitution in the 2700 block of Devonshire Avenue in North Fair Oaks after complaints from residents, Lunny said. “One resident sent us an ad from Craigslist that listed the residence as a shiatsu full-body massage,” Lunny wrote in an email.

Under California’s 2009 business and professions code, state-licensed massage therapists can work without obtaining additional licenses. However, cities and counties retain the power to issue business licenses and impose restrictions on those obtaining them. There are about 21 massage establishments in unincorporated areas of San Mateo County.

“What we’re doing is making sure our ordinance is up to date,” Lunny said, adding that surrounding cities within the county, including San Carlos, are doing the same.

“If you’re on one side of the street, it doesn’t make sense to have a different set of rules on the other,” San Carlos City Attorney Greg Rubens said. “I think it makes sense to have the ordinance match the county’s.”

Supervisor Carole Groom reviewed the proposed ordinance, along with Sheriff’s Office officials, at a late-April meeting of the Housing, Health and Human Services Committee. Groom said she wanted the ordinance to be “tough” so sheriff’s deputies had “plenty of tools to do the job effectively.”

“We’ve had some complaints from residents who thought some unsavory things were going on,” Groom said, who supports the update. “It’s a safety issue for the public.”

Groom served on the San Mateo City Council when it passed a “strong massage ordinance.” “We had some complaints then,” she said. “We wanted to stop it and we wanted to stop it early.”

The proposed ordinance could go before the Board of Supervisors within the next couple months, but Lunny said the Sheriff’s Office is planning do outreach work to various establishments first to gauge public opinion.

Some massage technicians have mixed feelings about the possible ordinance.

“As a massage therapist, I have to go through a background check when I get my state license,” said Lyndean Gilligan, a regional manager for the chain Massage Envy, which extends from Daly City to Monterey. “I think it’s a redundancy.”

Key components of proposed ordinance

  • Massage establishments must obtain local license
  • Operation hours limited to 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
  • Mandate that technicians wear “opaque” clothing
  • Forbid touching of genitals or breasts
  • Higher license fees for starting and renewing businesses (currently $50 and $5, respectively)

Source: San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office

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