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

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City Councilor Justin Wilson has recognized how outdated the ordinance is, as many similar services, such as physical therapy, often include home visits.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 And Arlington rescinded an ordinance pertaining to mobile massage therapists several years ago.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.”