City Council voted Tuesday to clamp down on brothels that masquerade as massage parlors.
The unanimous vote places strict restrictions on massage parlors, which are commonly fronts for prostitution, and gives the city greater latitude to shut down the its 18 established parlors if they offer sexual favors to clients.
After police shut down two parlors on prostitution charges last year, the police department and the city attorney determined that Berkeley needed to tighten its massage parlor ordinance to more thoroughly root out prostitution.
The new ordinance comes as merchants on San Pablo Avenue say that street walkers are at their highest level in years. Police have pledged to remedy that problem and have reported 72 prostitution arrests on that block from January through June.
The ordinance passed by council requires that parlor employees and applicants wishing to obtain or renew a massage parlor permit undergo a criminal background check. Massage workers also must provide documentation that they have completed 500 hours of training at a licensed massage school.
If the background check shows that an operator has a history of crimes that are of a sexual or violent nature, a permit will be refused. Additionally, the city can close a parlor after just one violation instead of two.
The previous ordinance failed to provide a strict standard to restrict prostitution at massage parlors, said Assistant City Attorney Zach Cowan.
He noted that after a police sting uncovered prostitution at the Golden Gypsy Massage Parlor last fall, the city’s efforts to close the shop ran into red tape. Because the sting operation was the parlor’s first recorded violation, the city had to wait several months and rely on the Zoning Adjustment Board to shut down the parlor due to zoning violations.
Massage workers were concerned about the bill’s ramifications. One worker at Tiki’s Hawaiian Massage on University Avenue said that she did not have 500 hours of schooling and that massage school was too expensive for some massage workers to complete. “Most of us here are working moms, it would cost $5,000 to get 500 hours of massage school,” she said.
Tuesday’s vote is the latest council effort to regulate massage parlors. Last year council passed a moratorium on massage parlors on University and Shattuck avenues saying that they did not fit in with a family oriented atmosphere.
Councilmembers said they did not expect law-abiding massage parlors to face harassment under the new ordinance.
“We have a live and let live attitude,” said Councilmember Donna Spring. “I can think of two parlors that might be connected to prostitution, but no one has complained.”