Decades old ordinance makes in-home massages ‘nearly illegal’ in Alexandria

By Melissa Quinn

For city residents, the comfort and convenience of an in-home massage remains far out of reach.

Massage therapists looking to take their business mobile face multiple barriers — including coordinating with the police department — that make visiting clients at their homes difficult. The law restricting traveling massagers, passed in 1973, harkens back to a different era.

“This was during the seedy times here in the City of Alexandria that involved not only just average citizens, but we had public officials of both the police side, Commonwealth’s Attorney’s side and others [go] to jail because of the abuse of massage and massage parlors and operations here in the city,” said Mayor Bill Euille at a city council meeting last week.

To combat the rampant lawlessness, officials put stringent regulations on traveling massagers. A licensed massage therapist hoping to make in-home visits must — in addition to paying $75 in various fees — register and meet with the police department’s vice and narcotics section. They also must turn over a list of client addresses, effectively making in-home massages at a moment’s notice impossible.

City Councilor Justin Wilson has recognized how outdated the ordinance is, as many similar services, such as physical therapy, often include home visits. With the emergence of massage therapy as a mainstream wellness activity, Wilson is leading the charge to revisit the law.

During last week’s lengthy council meeting, largely spent on the budget, Wilson asked City Manager Rashad Young to take a second look at the ordinance.

“We did get the budget tonight, and it’s very stressful and it’s understandable someone might want a massage after the presentation,” Wilson jokingly told his fellow council members several hours into the meeting.

But he said that receiving a massage at home is nearly illegal in Alexandria.

“Obviously this is a legacy of a different time in the city and different problems we were trying to address,” Wilson said.

While surrounding jurisdictions regulate in-home massage therapists, none are as stringent as the Port City. In Fairfax and Loudoun counties, massagers must get a permit, but neither municipality has additional restrictions on mobile services. And Arlington rescinded an ordinance pertaining to mobile massage therapists several years ago.

For Daniel Melmed, owner of Body Well — a mobile massage therapy company — Alexandria’s law catapulted him back to the 1950s. Melmed started his business in Florida, where it flourished, and chose to expand to the nation’s capital.

But his army of mobile massage therapists ran into complications on this side of the Potomac.

“[The ordinance] pretty much makes our business illegal in Alexandria,” he said. “Here we are in 2013 where massage therapy is a mainstream wellness activity that millions of Americans enjoy every day and every year, and they still have these restrictive laws.”

He offers services to clients in Montgomery, Prince George’s, Arlington and Fairfax counties, but not in Alexandria — and not by choice. Melmed believes the law stems from a time when massages were used as a front for illegal activities like prostitution. But today residents are simply denied access to a health service.

While City Hall made an attempt to lessen the regulations on in-home massages in 2010, little progress was achieved. There has been one exception to the law, though: A massage company successfully lobbied city council in 2009 to perform massages in hotels as long as it enjoys a direct relationship with the lodge.

In an effort to expand into Alexandria, Melmed has reached out to city council and is hopeful the lawmakers will respond to his plight.

“I want to get theses laws changed to something that is reasonable and more in line with the times,” he said. “I’m confident the right changes will be made.”

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(2) Readers Comments

  1. This is just a highly disturbing and offensive law. I have $12,00 degree in massage therapy of which I still owe nearly $7,000. I practice mostly in DC but live in Alexandria. I hold a national certification earned by exam, a DC license and a VA’certification’ which is equivalent to a license only with more regulations and less rights. I also hold 5 Presidential Volunteer Service awards from both President George Bush and President Barrack Obama for my work since 2007 in the military hospitals for our wounded service members and their families. I am a certified prenatal massage therapist. In addition to my student loans I spend several thousand dollars every few years to maintain my credentials. To be regulated as a prostitute on parole by my own government is highly offensive.

    I honestly do not even want the title of massage therapist anymore because as soon as I say it I have to also explain that I am not a prostitute and that my services are %100 non sexual. Furthermore you cannot police or prosecute illegal activity disguised as massage through regulation or the licensing boards. People engaged in illegal activity do submit themselves to the very costly education and licensing process. You do not need an expensive education and continuing education and licensing and liability insurance to perform sexual acts for money. It is bad enough that many unenlightened members of our society are unable to differentiate from a medical procedure and illicit sexual activity but I naively expect our elected officials to be a bit more well versed in what is health care and what is a crime.

    I went into this profession to help people with their pain, to support recovery from injury, and offer a service that can work in tandem with various athletic and fitness activities to help people meet their fitness goals. My interest comes from spending my entire childhood in pain due to rheumatoid arthritis and overcoming the debilitating effects of that disease in my mid 20s. I am a health care professional and I expect our government to realize that and realize the role my profession plays in the care for individuals experiencing a wide variety of different health conditions. Perhaps they just believe that everybody should be having surgeries and taking drugs to deal with muscular pain that can easily be treated by massage therapy without side effects. I hope they get it together sooner rather than later.

    For the record I do not do house calls in Alexandria

  2. CORECTION- I meant to say that people involved in illegal activity do NOT submit themselves to the very expensive education and licensing process.

    Subsequently I remember that reporting any identifying information about a client would be a direct violation of HIPPA that all massage therapists and other health professionals are bound by. It doesn’t matter if you are reporting identifying information to the police or an individual or media outlet, disclosing the private medical information of individuals is illegal and that would include persons seeking massage therapy.

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