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Bath Club Closes; Cites Patron Loss, Action by County

February 27, 1986|LARRY GORDON | Times Staff Writer

Healthworks, which billed itself as "L. A.'s only co-sexual bath club," closed permanently Tuesday because of declining business and a dispute over county regulations aimed at reducing the spread of AIDS, the owner of the Silver Lake club said.

The closure came one day after the county filed a complaint in Los Angeles Superior Court against the bathhouse, charging that the club violated county rules by allowing so-called high-risk sexual activity.

It was the first such complaint filed since the regulations were adopted in December by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Deputy County Counsel Steven Carnevale said.

Plans Speeded

Carnevale said the complaint was to have been the first step toward seeking an injunction against the club, at 2114 Hyperion Ave. But he said Wednesday that he expects to let the matter drop because of the club's closing.

"I just want to be satisfied that it's really out of business and not operating elsewhere," he said.

Steve Downard, who has owned Healthworks since 1981, said he had planned to close the club at the end of this week anyway but the county action prompted him to act more quickly. Patronage has dropped about 80% since public fear of contracting acquired immune deficiency syndrome became widespread last year, he said.

"It's become an unprofitable business and I don't want to dissipate my own energy with a fight with the county. The county has unlimited resources to work with. I don't," said Downard, who has been chairman of the Silver Lake Merchants' Assn. for two years. He decided not to run for office again in the group's election, which was held Monday.

The club's building, which includes two apartments on the second floor, has been for sale for several weeks. Downard, who is also an executive with a Los Angeles industrial credit firm, said he will pursue other business interests in Orange County, but will not be involved in any sex clubs.

Despite the nature of Healthworks, Downard earned respect from police and elected officials for his work in the merchants association on such neighborhood matters as street lighting and parking.

His club had kept a low profile until the past few months, when he began to speak out against county regulation of bathhouses as a violation of civil liberties.

Downard, who is homosexual, was especially angry at the Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles, the influential Westside gay political group that in November called for voluntary closure of all bathhouses.

The closing of Healthworks, Downard said Wednesday, "means that, in another area of human activity, the state has decided to direct individual activities. It's a diminution of freedom. But it seems to be a popular new restriction."

Incident Spurred Action

Carnevale said the complaint was filed after an attendant at Healthworks refused to admit county inspectors into the club a few weeks ago. Other clubs have not resisted inspection.

"The idea was to enforce the guidelines, not to punish a bathhouse," he said of the complaint.

The rules require any club where high-risk sex might take place to employ monitors to patrol the facility and expel any patron found participating in such sex acts. The clubs must also add lighting and remove doors from cubicles.

High-risk sex, as defined in the regulations, includes oral and anal intercourse between men, with or without the use of condoms.

Downard resisted having to follow the rules because, he said, most of his patrons were heterosexual men and women, although some bisexual and homosexual men also were customers. He said he had posted signs warning customers about sex acts thought to spread AIDS, and had offered free condoms as protection.

Carnevale said that, before the regulations, county inspectors had witnessed unsafe sex acts between men at Healthworks. In addition, he said, the health emergency created by AIDS gives the county power to regulate heterosexual sex clubs--even if the regulations do not specifically mention intercourse between men and women.

Larry Lloyd, the new chairman of the Silver Lake Merchants Assn., said the group had never pressured Downard to step down as chairman because of the controversy over bathhouses.

"We were all very supportive of him," said Lloyd, who recently opened a restaurant, Partners and Co., on Hyperion Avenue. "We are very sorry to see him go."

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