Mountain View Voice

Opinion - November 5, 2010

What's the rub about foot massage?

Forgive us if we fail to get the connection between a foot massage performed in an open room by someone who did not necessarily get certified by a higher power, and a full body massage, which is provided by someone in a private room with much higher skills who can earn $50-$70 or more per hour, depending on the "level" of service.

Last week the City Council agreed that foot massage operations should get a break from parts of what some might describe as draconian permit requirements for full body rubs, which are designed to weed out practitioners who might offer much more than a massage.

But the high hurdles in place to trip up the occasional prostitution ring (the last big bust was in 2007) are viewed as grossly unfair by foot massage operator David Bertelsen, who did win a small break when the City Council agreed to reduce portions of the strict ordinance for applicants like Bertelsen, who clearly are not a prostitution threat.

But even after relaxing some requirements of the massage ordinance, the council left intact enough hardship to make anyone without deep pockets to think twice before venturing into the foot spa business in Mountain View. In neighboring Palo Alto, Bertelsen said it cost him just over $200 for a permit that he essentially received by simply placing a phone call to the police department.

In Mountain View, on the other hand, even under the new ordinance, a foot massage parlor must obtain a $3,000 conditional use permit and individual therapists are required to shell out $400 for an annual "non certification" fee, a charge most workers simply cannot afford, according to Bertelsen.

The problem here is that the city fails to make the distinction between an operation that easily could house a prostitution ring and an open room, foot massage business that is more akin to nail salon, which offers customers a warm footbath and perhaps a foot massage before performing a pedicure. These humble shops should be permitted just like manicure and pedicure businesses, which means all they need is a business license.

This is the only fair way to treat foot massage specialists. There are plenty of economic forces that come into play when any new business opens, so that in itself will help weed out fly-by-night operators. The city is eager to see the downtown area become more vibrant and filled with successful businesses that will produce sales tax revenue and attract more shoppers.

Council member Laura Macias voted against relaxing some of the massage parlor ordinance for foot massage operations, saying, "I think people giving massages should be trained people. Now we're introducing a carve-out" that would allow a new class of low-cost masseurs.

We believe she misses the point. The city is entirely correct in setting the bar high to open a full massage parlor, but foot massage is hardly in that category. The council should at least consider doing away with the conditional use permit for foot massage shops. This business is far removed from the brothels the city is trying to prevent.

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