Mountain View Voice

News - October 29, 2010

Council relaxes massage rules

Foot spa owner says there's still a few kinks

by Daniel DeBolt

David Bertelsen said it only took a phone call to police to get the OK for Happy Feet foot spa in Palo Alto and a little more than $200 in city fees. But in Mountain View, he has been asked by police to jump through a slew of hoops, including spending thousands of dollars for over 200 hours of training, health exams, fingerprinting and background checks for employees, as well as pay $3,000 for a conditional use permit.

Why all the red tape? Much of it has to do with prostitution.

Many of those regulations were designed to discourage brothels disguised as massage parlors, several of which were busted by police in Mountain View seven years ago. The operations employed women believed to have been trafficked to the United States from Asia as part of the sex trade.

But Bertelsen says his foot spa at 868 Villa St. could never operate as a brothel. Customers are treated in a common room and don't take their clothes off, only their shoes and socks.

"We are trying to get the city of Mountain View to not classify us as a massage parlor," said Bertelsen, who runs the Happy Feet foot spa chain with his wife, Ping Bertelsen. "We don't do full body massage in private rooms so you don't have those problems" with illicit activity.

In response to Bertelsen's complaints, the city attorney's office created a revised massage ordinance, and the City Council voted 6-1 to approve it on Tuesday.

While the new ordinance addresses the more significant obstacles for Happy Feet, such as eliminating expensive training for his employees, the city will still require a $400 annual "non-certification" fee for a foot masseur, which the city says will help recover its costs for masseur health exams and application processing.

"The fees for the employees are going to be a hardship for us," Bertelsen said. Happy Feet's employees make only $10 per one-hour massage (the massages cost $25 per hour), plus tips. Bertelsen said it's possible for some to make little more than $30 a day.

The employees "know they can go to Palo Alto, Los Altos or San Jose and do the same work and not pay the $400," he said. "These are the same fees charged in regular massage parlors. Those people charge $50-60 an hour for their services. There is a lot more money in the massage parlor business than in foot spas."

Council members Tom Means and John Inks voted for the ordinance, but agreed with Bertelsen that the fees were too high and appeared necessary.

"I am just starting to wonder if we are going to regulate every low wage worker in town," Means said.

Council member Laura Macias cast the only no vote on the new ordinance.

"I think people giving massages should be trained people," she said. "Now we're introducing a carve-out" that could allow a new class of low-cost masseurs. "That doesn't make sense to me," she said.

City attorney Jannie Quinn said that by introducing a carve-out for "non certification" status for untrained masseurs, "market forces" would influence the level of quality of massages in the city.

As part of the new ordinance, foot spas will be required to post licenses for their employees on their walls to show their status as "non-certified" by the city.

At Happy Feet, the lack of city-sanctioned training doesn't necessarily mean a bad massage, Bertelsen said. He pointed to online reviews of his business at Yelp.com, where reviewers proclaim Happy Feet to be the "McDonald's" of massage.

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