Los Angeles County supervisors Tuesday finalized regulations requiring bathhouses and sex clubs to obtain health permits -- a move that will make it easier for authorities to shut down facilities that don't meet stringent new rules.
The new regulations require that so-called "commercial sex venues," which are frequented by gay and bisexual men, be inspected quarterly and pay annual fees of $1,088 each. They must also offer on-site testing and counseling for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, as well as provide free condoms, lubricant and information on safe sex.
Large signs must be posted at entrances prohibiting unprotected sex on the premises.
Owners are prohibited from admitting anyone clearly under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs.
County health officials will begin issuing permits in mid-February.
Bathhouses and sex clubs will be required to set up HIV testing and counseling for at least 20 hours a week by March 1.
"This is a place where we have some opportunity to reach people and make sure they get appropriate education, get condoms and testing," said John Schunhoff, the county's chief of operations for public health.
The stricter regulations were inspired by studies in recent years showing bathhouse patrons were at far greater risk of becoming infected with HIV than the general population. Technically, the county has had the power to shut down bathhouses for years, but the old rules were all but unenforceable, officials said.
Now, a sex club that violates the new rules can be closed in a similar way an errant restaurant or tattoo parlor can, Schunhoff said.
Although the county's nine known bathhouses and two sex clubs are within the city of Los Angeles, the county has jurisdiction over public health. Last year, the City Council signed off on the new regulations.
The county agreed in talks with bathhouse owners to pick up the testing and lab costs. The bathhouses will pay for the counselors.
Scott Campbell is president of Midtowne Spa, which runs three bathhouses in Los Angeles. He said facilities like his were being unfairly singled out.
He noted that people are increasingly finding sexual partners in bars and through websites.
Campbell said his bathhouses already spend $200,000 a year on safe-sex materials.
"Bathhouses are an easy target," Campbell said.
"Our customers tend to be people ... who are closeted and they're not going to stand up and protest."