CITY HALL — A measure designed to close massage parlors that exploit victims of human trafficking advanced Wednesday after winning the support of a City Council committee.
Authored by 19th Ward Ald. Matt O'Shea, the measure was prompted by a citywide crackdown on massage parlors in May — dubbed "Operation Hot Towel" — that found that 77 percent of Chicago's massage parlors were not in compliance with city regulations, said Christy George, an assistant commissioner with the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.
The measure is designed to give the Chicago Police Department more tools to stop human trafficking — while lifting restrictions on massage parlors that do follow the rules, O'Shea said.
The new rules, which are expected to be approved by the full City Council at its meeting next week, would raise the minimum age for massage therapists to 18 from 15, George said.
In addition, workers at massage parlors accused of prostitution will be allowed to defend themselves by asserting that they have been the victim of human trafficking, George said.
Laura Ng, executive director of Traffick Free Chicago, which works to combat human trafficking in Chicago and help victims of it, said the new rules would usher in a "great shift" for those in need of assistance.
"This will allow us to rely on the Chicago Police Department and know that they care about this population," Ng said.
However, Ellen Lettin, who said she has been a massage therapist for 15 years, said the new regulations do not go far enough and should draw a line between legal establishments and havens for crime and exploitation.
Customers must keep their "sexual or genital" areas covered at all times while in the massage parlor. Drunken customers or those under the influence of drugs are prohibited from entering massage parlors under the proposed new rules.
The penalties for violations would increase from $500 to $1,000 to $1,000 to $5,000 under the measure.
The new regulations eliminate the need for foot- and chair-massage businesses to obtain a city license. They also allow massage parlors to share bathrooms with nail salons or hotels when appropriate.