The Howard County Council last night approved new restrictions that could drive some of the county's thriving massage parlors out of business.
The new law, to take effect in January, will make it illegal to massage a client of the opposite sex. Certified massage therapists and other medical professionals will be exempt from the rule.
Police argued the new law would help them prevent the illegal sex acts they say are common at most of the county's 13 massage parlors.
"The activity going on in these things is becoming unbearable," said Councilman Darrell E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican, before the 4-1 vote approving the new restrictions.
Also last night, Comcast Cablevision began seeking approval for a rate increase. Hundreds of thousands of Baltimore-area Comcast customers, including the 55,000 in Howard, are seeing their rates rise about 10 percent this month.
The Howard County Council has the power to regulate only a small portion -- in this case, 16 cents -- of the recent rate increase, which is costing most subscribers $3 more on their monthly bills. Debate on cable rates will begin with a public hearing Nov. 17.
Last night, debate in the council focused on Howard's long battle against massage parlors, which have become increasingly common throughout the 1990s -- a time when most neighboring counties have cracked down on them.
Howard passed massage parlor regulations in 1994, but at that time rejected a request by police to prohibit cross-gender massages. That law also included generous exemptions that left nearly all of the county's massage parlors unregulated.
A 1995 police sting turned up evidence of sex acts in Howard massage parlors, but the prosecutions disintegrated in the face of charges that officers had engaged in sex acts unnecessarily.
With last night's vote, police expect to have an easier time investigating massage parlors. None will be exempt and the new cross-gender ban will make it easier for police to spot violations.
Councilman C. Vernon Gray, an east Columbia Democrat, was the only opponent of the bill last night.
He argued that it was too sweeping and violated the rights of massage parlor operators by giving police power to search without first obtaining a warrant.
The law also requires background information on the owners, managers and other employees of massage parlors.
"Approaching it from the law-enforcement perspective, you tend not to look at it from the rights and liberty perspective," Gray said.
Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, supported Gray's effort to delay a vote on the bill.
She argued that several key details, including the county bill's relation to a new state law regulating massage therapists, required more study and debate.
"It's a lot easier to do it right -- take a month and do it right -- than to go back [later] and figure out what's wrong," Lorsung said.
But when the vote came, she supported the bill.
Beginning in January, the state will have extensive new standards to certify massage therapists, who typically undergo 18 months of training costing several thousand dollars.
County officials acknowledge that the state and county laws will overlap. But they argue the county law will allow them to target not just employees but owners and managers of massage parlors.
Council Chairman Dennis R. Schrader, a Republican, also complained about some aspects of the massage parlor bill.
"I don't particularly like some of the parts of this, but I know what we're trying to do," Schrader said.
Columbia lawyer Vincent Guida, representing two massage parlors with county licenses, said the new prohibition against cross-gender massages should not apply until their licenses expire in 1999.
"Just like a driver's license," Guida said, "they should be allowed to operate under the rules when they were issued."
Also last night, the council voted unanimously to lower the amusement tax for sports facilities from 7.5 percent to 5 percent.
The action was retroactive to September 1994, meaning the Volleyball House in Columbia, which faces back taxes and penalties of nearly $60,000, will see its bill drop by $15,000.
"This is an opportunity to assist a small business in the county with a minimum impact on the county treasury," said Gray, a sponsor of the bill.
Pub Date: 11/04/97