Massage therapists battle over proposal to regulate their business in Fargo

The ordinance, which is still in its draft stage, would allow city health officials to inspect massage businesses in the same way they inspect restaurants, animal kennels and tattoo parlors. The proposal as written regulates businesses and is not aimed at massage therapists themselves.

The ordinance would affect 55 businesses, which employ 187, which makes up about 25% of the state’s 750 massage therapists licensed by the North Dakota Board of Massage Therapy.

Fargo Cass Public Health Director of Environmental Health Grant Larson put together a task force on the proposal and took comments from an audience of about 30 at a hearing on Thursday morning, May 13, at Fargo City Hall.

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Massage therapists battle over proposal to regulate their business in Fargo

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“Nothing is finalized,” he said, explaining he didn’t want to burden the industry but was asking for input on if the ordinance was needed and would perhaps fill a gap as the state board doesn’t regularly do any inspections.

Massage therapist and business owner Stephanie Ramsey said the state board had never inspected her operation in her 23 years in business.

Questions raised at the hearing were on a wide variety of issues, including possible fees, the ordinance’s language, effects on in-home operations, therapists working at multiple locations and sanitation of facilities.

The elephant in the room, though, was the question of whether the city and police were trying to get at prostitution or illegal sexual activity, known for decades to be an issue in some operations nationwide.

Larson pointed out that a section of the proposed ordinance would allow police to investigate any reports of such activity and uncover any prostitution going on.

While the Fargo Police Department rarely gets any complaints about prostitution at city massage businesses, it would be “ignorant to think it doesn’t happen,” said Fargo Police Acting Capt. Chris Helmick.

Though police get few reports of illegal activity at massage parlors, Fargo-area advocates insist it’s a problem locally.

“We know absolutely that’s it’s happening,” said Emily Schwartz, director of the North Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force, who argued the proposed ordinance would help victims of sex trafficking by giving police greater ability to investigate reports.

Linda Boyd, who serves on the board of directors for Youthworks, an organization that helps homeless and trafficked youth, agreed.

“Websites make it clear what’s happening and where,” she said as she explained why she supported the ordinance.

Making sure massage businesses have only licensed therapists would help fight the problem and give the public peace of mind, Boyd said.

Every massage therapist has “heard the ‘happy ending’ jokes,” said licensed therapist Keith Coates, who conducted a personal investigation of Fargo-area massage businesses in 2019 and claimed he was offered sexual favors at four establishments.

“I strongly believe the city of Fargo approach to fill in the gap in inspections is the right thing to do,” he said at the hearing. “Our profession isn’t going anywhere, but the illegal establishments should go.”

Retired massage therapist Steve Olson, a critic of the proposed ordinance who was once president of the American Massage Therapy Association, said he has seen no signs of prostitution at massage parlors in Fargo.

“In my experience, city and county ordinances always regulate the massage profession based on prostitution,” Olson said. “The same tone is coming through in this ordinance; it’s not favorable to the profession.”

Licensed therapist Carrie Anderson, who said she was a state board member but wasn’t speaking on the board’s behalf, called the language in the current draft of the ordinance highly offensive.

“You are pretty much basically calling me a prostitute the way it is written,” she said. “It hurts me.”

When asked by Larson, the health official, if she favored the overall purpose of the ordinance, Anderson said she was undecided but was certainly against the way it was currently written. She also expressed concern that it could be a burden on small businesses.

State vs. local regulation

Supporters and opponents also discussed the issue of whether the state or city should be responsible for inspecting massage businesses.

Olson said he strongly believes the state can handle inspection and licensing issues as it has since 1959, and added that the city doesn’t license any other professionals similar to massage therapists.

“Professions deserve the right to be inspected by their professional bodies,” he said. “The city can do a lot of great things, but we deserve to be inspected by our peers. A true profession needs to be reviewed by its peers.”

Ramsay, though, said she was strongly in favor of the city’s efforts.

“The idea of the city stepping in to do what was mandated by state law but wasn’t being done — we’ve got to be a part of it,” she said of inspections. “The city has the capacity and expertise to develop some annual regular inspections and cover it all in one swoop. It can take care of the illicit aspect of it.”

Fargo’s ordinance could be a model for the rest of the state, Ramsay added.

“As many have stated, the shady establishments are a scourge on this profession,” she said. “If a simple cooperation between cities and state can seal that gap that’s what we are really hoping to achieve.”

Larson, who agreed to meet with massage therapists in smaller groups for further discussion, said the Fargo City Commission will likely start the process of voting on the proposal in mid-to-late-June.

If approved, it could be an ordinance by late July, although some at the Thursday hearing favored waiting until Jan. 1.

Regardless of when the ordinance would come into effect, inspections likely will not start until next year, Larson said.