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Sterling Heights City Council passes proposal to regulate, cap massage businesses

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published February 14, 2020

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STERLING HEIGHTS — City officials are expressing hope that new massage establishment regulations could rub out impostor setups that engage in prostitution.

In a 5-2 vote Feb. 4, the Sterling Heights City Council adopted an ordinance updating massage establishment regulations. Councilwomen Maria Schmidt and Barbara Ziarko voted no.

According to city officials, the proposal’s purpose is to continue to make the city welcoming for law-abiding massage therapists while discouraging unlawful dens of prostitution from setting up shop.

During a Jan. 21 Sterling Heights City Council meeting, Assistant City Attorney Dan DeNault Jr. gave a presentation on the proposal. He said that, in 1995, a Ferndale ordinance that regulated massage was struck down in court because state law regulated the practice. But after the state later decided to deregulate and bequeath the responsibility to municipalities, Sterling Heights made its own ordinance on the matter in 2006.

Eventually, the state Legislature decided that the state should reacquire the licensing responsibility for massage therapists, so the city adapted its ordinance in 2014 to reflect that, DeNault said.

But lately, the city and local police have reflected on national and local news stories about massage establishments and sex trafficking. The news prompted Sterling Heights officials to review policies to ensure they’re “fostering good businesses,” DeNault explained.

“Michigan is certainly not untouched by the illicit part of the industry,” he said. “But a number of states have been enacting initiatives and other things that they can try to do to be creative to try to address any businesses that really shouldn’t be operating or aren’t part of the legitimate massage establishment industry.”

While police reportedly do what they can under the existing city code, city officials studied the issue and how other communities handle things. DeNault said the city’s proposal tightens loopholes and clarifies the ordinance’s intent to stop unlawful acts such as prostitution and human trafficking.

The amendment also modifies what a “massage establishment” means. The definition includes fitness and health clubs, hairstylists, and cosmetology schools, but it excludes places supervised “by a licensed medical professional.” The definition of massage therapy also doesn’t apply to massage from the neck and up only, such as the kind done at cosmetology schools.

DeNault said the practice of reiki will only be excluded from falling under the massage definition if a licensed reiki master teacher is involved.

“It’s a concept (reiki) that you can work with a person’s energy without actually touching them,” DeNault said. “With that practice, what we’ve found, though, is … they sometimes tell the police, ‘Well, that’s all we do here, so therefore, we’re not really a massage business.’

“So we added a little something in the ordinance just to make sure that they’re legitimate, that they have a master teacher license for that practice.”

According to the city, Sterling Heights has approximately 28 places that offer massage as a primary or ancillary service, and six of those are medical and are outside the new regulations’ scope. Twelve businesses provide massage as their main service in the city, though DeNault said that counts one that is currently closed.

Under an earlier version of the proposal, the city would have established a maximum cap of 12 licensed massage establishments in the city — but in the 5-2 vote Feb. 4, the cap was raised via a motion to 18 in the final text. Any existing massage establishments above the cap will be grandfathered in until they move, close or otherwise cease to exist through attrition.

Violators of the proposed regulations may have their massage license suspended by the city clerk for a maximum of 90 days. Suspended businesses may have the chance to appeal the suspension before the city’s Board of Ordinance Appeals, according to officials. Revocation is a possible penalty, as well.

At the Jan. 21 meeting, Councilman Henry Yanez praised the proposal.

“I think it’s clear that human trafficking has been a real problem in this country for a long time, and a lot of that goes through these massage establishments,” he said. “So I think we’re doing a good thing by updating our law.”

However, at both meetings, some council members questioned the concept of a cap on the number of massage establishments. In response, DeNault said Feb. 4 that police resources are limited, and when an illegal establishment shuts down, it sometimes tries to worm its way back in and get re-established through a straw sale, restructured ownership or other methods.

Councilman Michael Radtke drove the effort to raise the proposed cap on massage establishments.

“Massage parlors, as long as they’re operating legally, are allowed,” Radtke said. “So in my opinion, that’s why I want to raise the cap because, as it stands right now, we are eventually going to be squeezing out legal businesses, and that’s not the way that America should work, in my opinion.”

During the Feb. 4 meeting, Schmidt and Ziarko opposed both the motion to increase the cap on massage businesses and the proposal’s final text. Schmidt explained that she was comfortable with not altering the text to change the cap.

“If it becomes too restrictive, we can always amend it,” she said. “I’d like to give our officers the chance and the other departments a chance to see how this all plays out.”

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