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Licensing Urged for Gay Bathhouses

County proposal is in response to rising rate of HIV infection. Critics say it violates privacy.

June 25, 2004|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

Faced with evidence that HIV infection is spreading rapidly among gay men after years of decline, top public health officials in Los Angeles County are urging the Board of Supervisors to increase regulation of gay bathhouses and sex clubs.

The 11 gay bathhouses and sex clubs in the county should be required to obtain licenses from the health department to operate, county public health chief Jonathan Fielding said in a report this week. The licenses could be revoked if the clubs allowed patrons to engage in unprotected sex.

The proposal already has drawn fire from bathhouse owners and some gay activists, who say it infringes on the privacy and civil rights of gay men.

"We find this proposal to be extremely discriminatory," said political consultant Steve Afriat, who represents the owners of nine clubs.

But others, recalling the role of bathhouses in spreading HIV and AIDS when the epidemic first began, welcomed the proposed rules.

"A business license is not a right -- it's a privilege," said Ged Kenslea, spokesman for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a treatment and advocacy organization that was among those pressing for increased regulation of the sex businesses. If nail salons and restaurants are required to meet health department regulations, Kenslea said, businesses where people are at risk for sexually transmitted diseases should also have to comply.

Bathhouses and sex clubs both are places where men pay an entry fee to meet other men and perhaps have sex. Bathhouses have swimming pools, saunas or hot tubs.

Fielding made his recommendations after a federally funded study showed new HIV infections among bathhouse and sex club patrons to be twice as high as in the gay population overall and seven times higher than in the general population.

"The incidence of HIV in these establishments continues to be unacceptably high," Fielding wrote. "As part of comprehensive efforts to control this epidemic, as well as reduce the rate of many other sexually transmitted diseases, it is necessary to regulate the [clubs] to minimize disease transmission."

Although San Francisco closed its bathhouses at the height of the AIDS epidemic 20 years ago, officials in Los Angeles County chose to issue relatively moderate regulations. Those rules covered bathhouses but not sex clubs, and required the county to go to court to close a club.

The new rules would allow the health department to close a club if it didn't have a license or if patrons had unprotected sex. "This is stronger, because it's more enforceable," said John Schunhoff, the county's chief of operations for public health.

Fielding's proposed regulations also would:

* Allow health inspectors to visit unannounced during the peak evening and weekend business hours. In the past, inspections were conducted during the day, when the clubs weren't busy.

* Require patrons to sign a consent form acknowledging that they know the rules. The clubs would be required to eject violators and bar them for six months. Anyone who used drugs also would be barred for six months.

* Require clubs to post signs detailing the rules, provide condoms, and offer HIV testing and counseling during peak evening and weekend hours.

* Require clubs to be well-lighted so that inspectors can see what patrons are doing.

Despite Fielding's support, the proposal faces some tough political hurdles.

Under an agreement made when the county took over public health responsibilities for the city of Los Angeles, any change in the region's health codes must be approved by both the Board of Supervisors and the City Council.

Many elected officials, concerned about civil rights issues, remain squeamish about regulating bathhouses and sex clubs.

None of the five county supervisors agreed to comment on the proposal for this report. Los Angeles city officials will not receive a copy of it until it has been passed by the supervisors.

Afriat said Thursday that he has already begun to lobby council members and supervisors against the proposal, which he says will scare customers away.

He said county officials would have access to customers' names and addresses.

"Private clubs will be subject to searches and will have to keep a database of individuals, with their names and addresses, who have unsafe sex," Afriat said. "When you stop to think about it, it's really quite horrendous."

But Fielding said the clubs pose a risk to public health.

"Diseases are being transmitted in these establishments," he said, "and we're interested in reducing that."

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