Balto. Co. aims to regulate massagers Zoning effective in March puts parlors out of business areas

December 28, 1998|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

Baltimore County is hoping to resolve a problem that has been studied by state officials for the past year: What is a massage therapist?

County officials are planning to spell out certification requirements for legitimate therapists to distinguish them from the tawdry, adult-oriented massage parlors that over the years have been the focus of community complaints, tightened zoning regulations and police crackdowns.

Officials say the regulations are needed because zoning codes effective March 20 will restrict massage parlors to heavy manufacturing districts.

Massage therapists -- who study in accredited schools and train for hundreds of hours -- should be allowed to continue operating in business districts, county officials say.

County officials would require certified therapists to have either of two credentials. They must have at least 500 hours of training at an approved massage school and pass a national exam, or complete 200 hours of training and be enrolled in a massage school while working under the supervision of someone who has passed the exam and completed 500 hours of training.

Beth Woodland-Hargrove, deputy county attorney, said the county regulation is tentatively scheduled to be considered by the County Council on Jan. 20 and would remain only until state certification regulations take effect next year.

A state law that took effect in January gives the state authority to certify massage therapists and says that anyone who gives a massage without certification could be fined up to $5,000 and receive a year in prison.

But Woodland-Hargrove said the county has been waiting for the past year for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to draft certification requirements for massage therapists.

Without a state definition, the county must adopt its own, she said.

Jon Laking, an Annapolis physical therapist and massage therapist who is chairman of the state Massage Therapy Advisory Committee, said the regulations have become the focus of an intense debate over the roles of the state's estimated 2,000 massage therapists and what should be required for certification.

"There are turf battles between therapists who do massages over who can do what," Laking said.

James Vallone, committee administrator, said there is no way to know when state certification requirements might be approved.

He said an initial set of proposed certification requirements released this year for public comment prompted about 100 letters from therapists and professional groups.

"There's been a lot of public input so far, and responding to that takes time," Vallone said.

Vallone said the state law was enacted at the request of therapists who are frustrated with the lack of regulation and the bad name sometimes pinned on their profession because of illegal operations.

"It's a way for the profession to control who qualifies as a massage therapist," Vallone said.

Therapists say that state and county regulations should help differentiate therapists from the adult-oriented massage parlors.

"It'll bring some legitimacy to the field. You shouldn't be able to read a book, put up a shingle and call yourself a massage therapist," said Jeff Schnitzer, a Towson massage therapist who went through 500 hours of training at the Baltimore School of Massage in Woodlawn and is an instructor there.

Mary Cook, who operates a massage therapy practice in Reisterstown, said that when she set up shop two years ago she had a difficult time convincing county officials that she was in business strictly to give massages. To this day, men call looking for more than that, she said.

"I have to screen the calls. A lot of people call me and they think I'm doing other things than massages, but I'm not," said Cook, who is a licensed physical therapist's assistant and a graduate of the Baltimore School of Massage.

Pub Date: 12/28/98

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