Rubbing Out Illicit Massage Parlors

January 26, 1994

There is no coincidence that just as Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties cracked down on questionable massage parlors, several of them sprouted up in neighboring Howard. Fleeing tough restrictions, these parlors, some allegedly trafficking in prostitution, found a haven in the county.

Now the massage outlets face similar restrictions in Howard, although the scope of proposed regulation may not be enough to send these businesses packing again.

At issue is just how tough Howard County wants to get. Absent regulations, policing illegal operations involves clever sleuthing that does not always yield results, police contend. County Executive Charles I. Ecker has proposed a bill that would require massage parlor employees to be licensed and to submit to medical check-ups and fingerprinting. Some County Council members, however, want to go a step further, making it illegal to massage members of the opposite sex.

It is important to note that no one is suggesting that these restrictions apply to health professionals, athletic trainers or therapists who are nationally certified or licensed as cosmetologists and barbers. In other words, legitimate therapists would continue to be allowed to massage members of the opposite sex. The bill is aimed solely at the nine or so massage parlors in Howard County that are not currently certified or licensed.

Those parlors are largely staffed by immigrant Korean women. Their attorneys claim that even Mr. Ecker's less-radical legislation will force them out of business. Nothing in the county executive's bill, however, is so punitive that it should deter legitimate enterprises.

A police raid last week led to five women being arrested on various charges, including prostitution, at three parlors -- even with no new law on the books. Rather than being content with such success, county police officials say they need greater legislative tools to help them more easily curtail illegal activity.

While Mr. Ecker's decision to allow same-sex massages leaves a potential loophole that the less savory operations may try to leap DTC through, the County Council should approve the executive's bill as proposed. If compassion is found to have exceeded good judgment, we will know soon enough. And then the real clampdown should begin.

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