San Mateo County ordinance seeks to regulate massage parlors

The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office has made prostitution busts in at least two massage parlors this year, and officers believe others could be fronts for prostitution and human trafficking.

The county’s unincorporated portions are home to 22 such establishments, and San Mateo County sheriff’s Lt. Ray Lunny said “we have several we’re concerned about.”

But an ordinance that may be considered by the Board of Supervisors next month could provide the department with new tools to help separate legitimate massage providers and businesses from establishments engaging in illegal activities.

It’s one of several such ordinances being considered by Bay Area officials in the wake of state laws that created a certification process for massage professionals.

“It actually makes it easier for us as long as we keep track of everybody,” said Redwood City Police Sgt. Steve Blanc, whose City Council just approved a new ordinance meant to conform to state law. “We would prefer everybody have a state permit.”

Redwood City has required practitioners to obtain a city permit since 1972. But state lawmakers approved a voluntary certification process for massage therapists and practitioners in 2008, which trumped local permit requirements for those who obtain state certification and for massage establishments that use only certified massage professionals.

State law allows cities and counties to require massage businesses to procure business licenses, even if they use only certified professionals. But they can’t place more rules on those businesses than on other types of local establishments. An update clarifying the rights of massage professionals and what local jurisdictions can and can’t do goes into effect Jan. 1.

Redwood City’s new rules, approved Nov. 14 and set to go into effect July 1, allow only certified practitioners to work inside city limits. Of the 77 massage practitioners identified by city staff, 61 have the required state certification, while 16 have city permits only.

In addition to requiring state certification, San Mateo County’s proposed ordinance would limit the hours of massage businesses and require workers to log the services they provide, and would also require the businesses to leave their reception areas unlocked and visible from the outside. It also would require workers to wear nontransparent clothing and prohibit them from providing services not on a posted list.

In addition to law enforcement, the new rules also help massage practitioners, said Beverly May of the California Massage Therapy Council, which offers the certifications. They can use the certification to work anywhere in California, instead of being forced to obtain permits and to submit to fingerprinting and background checks in each city and county where they work.

May said council staff worked with Redwood City to craft its new ordinance and is working with San Mateo County and San Carlos. She said the council has had some conversations with officials in San Francisco — which has local permit requirements for massage professionals who don’t have state certification — though there are no plans to change that city’s rules yet.

“I think at some point, they’ll revise the ordinance,” May said.