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Reno targets illegal prostitution with new massage business ordinance

Tabitha Mueller

The Nevada Independent

Massage parlor signage as seen in Las Vegas on Aug. 10, 2019.
Photo: Daniel Clark / The Nevada Independent)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was first published by The Nevada Independent on Feb. 14 and is republished here with permission.

RENO, Nev. — The Reno City Council last week unanimously approved implementing stronger regulations for massage establishments in an attempt to target and remove businesses serving as fronts for illegal activities such as prostitution or human trafficking.

Council members voted on the ordinance in a meeting on Feb. 12. They had directed city staff to start developing an ordinance in August following calls from police and other groups for stronger laws addressing illegal prostitution disguised as massage businesses last year.

Under the new regulations, operators of massage establishments in the city will be required to obtain an FBI background check and have a manager present during operating hours. Businesses are also no longer allowed to have an on-site ATM, tinted exterior windows, or recording devices in treatment rooms.

The ordinance also bans 24-hour operations because standard massage establishments usually do business during the day, and illicit activities are more likely to occur at night.

Currently, licensed therapists undergo an initial background investigation as part of a state licensing process, and some therapists complete a background check to receive national certification, but Reno does not require massage establishment owners to be licensed therapists at either the state or federal level.

In a phone interview with The Nevada Independent, Sandy Anderson, director of the Nevada State Board of Massage Therapy, estimated that out of 280 licensed massage establishments in the Truckee Meadows area, 26, or roughly 9 percent, were home to illicit activities.

Anderson said the board identifies illegal massage parlors by looking at whether businesses advertise sex on the internet and with data from the Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization committed to combating and preventing human trafficking.

Although the Nevada State Board of Massage Therapy might know what businesses are conducting illicit activities, Anderson said it is difficult to prove an organization is breaking the law. She said the new city ordinance adds a level of oversight that will make it harder for organizations to put up a front.

“[Reno’s] ordinances now are very similar to the City of Henderson. The City of Henderson has seen a major decline in the number of illicit establishments in the city,” Anderson said. “And that’s what we’re hoping for Reno as well because we’ll have a better ability to address the illegal activity that’s occurring in these locations.”

Anderson also said that individuals with national certifications would not be significantly affected by the new ordinance, which is designed to address the businesses that are not following regulations and are “open 24 hours and have limos showing up at four o’clock in the morning.”

The proposal originally gave licensed massage establishments 18 months to comply with the ordinance once it goes into effect, but the City Council decided to shorten the compliance period to six months. City staff explained that they could require and enact the ordinance as soon as the council approves the latest change in the enactment timeline. 

If a massage establishment fails to comply with the ordinance change or fails a background check after the law is enacted, it risks losing its business license.