Alarmed by high HIV rates among patrons of gay bathhouses and sex clubs, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors tentatively approved a law Tuesday that would require such businesses to obtain a health permit to operate.
The permit could be revoked if customers, who pay entry fees to mingle in swimming pools and hot tubs or rent private rooms with beds, are allowed to have unprotected sex.
Because the county's nine known gay bathhouses and two sex clubs are within the city of Los Angeles, the regulations must be approved by the Los Angeles City Council before they can take effect.
"I think we have a serious obligation to address this issue," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who pushed for the tighter rules in a bid to curb new HIV infections. "The consequences of sweeping it under the rug are horrific."
In a federally funded study of two local bathhouses in 2001 and 2002, health officials found new HIV infections among 11% of the patrons tested, double the rate for gay men countywide and almost seven times that of the general public.
"We certainly have a public health risk," said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, the county's public health director. He estimated the commercial sex venues attract 600,000 patrons, some of them repeat customers, a year.
The county already has the authority to close bathhouses that allow people to engage in unprotected sex. But health officials say that law is too vague and difficult to enforce because patrons simply avoid inappropriate activity when health inspectors appear.
The new regulations would allow unannounced inspections during peak hours. They would also require clubs to post signs explaining the rules, provide condoms and offer HIV testing and counseling.
Supervisor Mike Antonovich asked health officials to also require bathhouse owners to undergo background checks and provide showers and clean linens at their establishments.
After hearing testimony from several AIDS-prevention groups and bathhouse patrons who favored the ordinance, the supervisors tentatively approved the proposal, which must be voted on again next week to receive final county approval.
Then it will be up to Los Angeles leaders to enact a similar law. A spokesman for City Council President Alex Padilla said he had yet to be contacted by any supervisors about the matter.
Stephen David Simon, the city's AIDS coordinator, said his office would encourage City Council members to support the new rules.
No bathhouse owners testified Tuesday against the measure.
In a telephone interview, Scott Campbell, president of Midtowne Spa, said the three bathhouses his group operates have been offering HIV testing since 1996 and hand out about 500,000 condoms per year.
Health officials, he said, "should have been coming to us and thanking us for helping to identify people who had HIV and didn't know it."
"We all have the same goal, which is for people to be healthy," Campbell said. "It doesn't do any good if you come up with regulations that run them out of the clubs, because then you have no access to them. We have a big market of closeted men and married men who are not out in the gay community."