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DSA In the News

Massage rules rub city wrong way

 | Published on 7/11/2011


There are some tell-tale signs that a massage establishment might be offering clients more than a legitimate rubdown, according to San Carlos’ top police official. 

There are codes, sometimes specific actions like leaving cash out on top of a customer’s pants and operators who don’t blink an eye at the permit fees or costly requirements by cities to install sinks and walls.

“They don’t mind doing or paying for whatever [building officials] ask them to do so they can get open,” said Greg Rothaus, San Carlos Patrol Bureau sheriff’s captain.

Since 2009, when the state took over massage therapist licensing from individual cities, Rothaus said his city has a growing number of applications and those tell-tale signs pointing to prostitution and possibly human trafficking. At least one establishment has led to arrests and Rothaus on Monday night will ask the City Council to ban all new businesses to keep more at bay.

“We don’t have a problem yet but a moratorium can get us some time to do something that closes the loopholes and do something that’s fair to legitimate massage businesses,” Rothaus said. “We want to call time-out on this.”

The proposal would allow existing locales to renew their permits as long as all therapists have valid, unconditional certificates from the nonprofit California Massage Therapy Council. To obtain a certificate, a person must pass a background and identity check and complete 250 hours of training.

The state established the council in 2009 to free practitioners from background checks and license fees in any and all cities where they worked. The idea was to also ease the burden on cities and police departments.

According to Rothaus, the burden has only increased under the well-intentioned legislation.

CAMTC issues conditional certificates to those who graduated from schools not requiring the same number of classroom or study issues. These can be a sign of illegitimate practitioners, Rothaus said.

CAMTC also doesn’t automatically pull a person’s license when they are arrested on suspicion of prostitution, freeing them to continue working while prolonging prosecution or plead no contest to disturbing the peace which doesn’t invalidate their permit, Rothaus said.

“The thing about the law is that cities have no more rights to regulate massage than any other service business,” Rothaus said.

But CAMTC CEO Ahmos Netanel said several of those arguments are wrong.

The law provided conditional permits for therapists who might have had the experience but not the required schooling as an alternative to grandfathering them in, Netanel said.

The idea was to give them time to come up to speed and the state will stop issuing conditional permits in December, he said.

CAMTC also does not need a conviction to revoke or suspend a license and does so weekly based often on little more than an officer’s declaration of not meeting professional standards, Netanel said.

“We make it easier to eradicate illicit activities in this profession,” Netanel said.

Prior to the state law change, San Carlos had one of the toughest massage ordinances on the books, said Assistant City Manager Brian Moura. 

In the last several months, the city has seen requests for businesses registrations and related permits skyrocket for massage therapy businesses, Moura said.

Although an average of an application a day or week may be low for some cities, that rate in San Carlos is unusual and leads to thought a majority are related to prostitution, Rothaus said.

The San Carlos Patrol Bureau of the Sheriff’s Office has also fielded a number of complaints and some massage businesses have been found on escort websites, Rothaus said.

In spring of 2010, police acted on tips about an establishment in the 1600 block of El Camino Real and executed a sting that arrested one and uncovered four Asian female workers on June 30, 2010. 

In October, police spot checked the same location working under a new name. Two Asian women were cited for operating without a permit but prostitution couldn’t be proven despite detectives’ suspicions. A February 2011 check raised similar suspicions. Two workers on site had legitimate CAMTC certification. In May, yet another undercover investigation yielded one arrest for prostitution.

Because the women involved are Asian and do not speak English, Rothaus said officials suspect there is human trafficking as well as prostitution involved.

Although Rothaus is asking for a moratorium, he is optimistic the state will tweak its rules to better prevent illegal activity and make a ban unnecessary. 

San Mateo County is also working on revamping its massage ordinance, said Chief Deputy County Counsel Lee Thompson.

The emergency moratorium would ban issuing permits for 45 days. The City Council can extend it for one year. 

Both Mayor Andy Klein and Councilman Randy Royce support Rothaus’ request.

The ordinance should have “little impact” on future massage business demand but can give the Sheriff’s Office support in controlling the illegal activity, Royce said. 

In June, the Belmont City Council approved a similar 45-day emergency moratorium after comparing city records against a list of  31 schools deemed suspect by CAMTC. City staff determined that 37 of 46 licensed massage therapists in the city had attended the schools.


The San Carlos City Council meets 7 p.m. Monday, July 11 at City Hall, 600 Elm St., San Carlos.