By Jim Hagerty
CITY HALL — Local leaders took another step in their effort to stop human trafficking Monday, by approving an ordinance aimed to rid the city of unscrupulous massage parlors at the Nov. 21 meeting of the Rockford City Council.
The ordinance requires massage parlors to obtain a $50 permit from the city and that all massage therapists be licensed by the State of Illinois. Businesses must also allow the city to perform random licensing and code inspections.
“We are trying to get a handle on illegitimate businesses that are offering massage without the proper license and without the proper insurance,” Twelfth Ward Alderman John Beck said. “We think [some are] also doing things besides massage that are not legal or within our accepted behaviors within the city. And we are going to build and collect fines from businesses that do that.”
Things other than massage, leaders say, are sex acts for money, marketed as massage therapy on websites known to advertise illicit services.
“Rockford has a reputation for sex trafficking and the sex trade,” Tim Durkee, alderman of the First Ward, said. “Unfortunately, when something like that happens, we have to cast a wide net to enforce [laws] and change what’s been happening.”
Bill Rose, D-9, said there have been two such massage business in his ward since he’s been on council, which takes away from the legitimate work professionals do to provide a necessary service and living for their families.
“I know if I have two, there are probably three others we haven’t found,” Rose said.
Sanford Therapeutic Massage, in Rockford’s Fourth Ward, reopened last month after being closed for two weeks because of code violations. The company had been advertising on the free classified website Backpage.com, known for its association with prostitution. After being alerted by law enforcement, Sanford has since stopped using the site but continues to promote the parlor on Craigslist.
The council initially proposed a licensing fee of $75 to better help the city better bear the cost of monitoring businesses for compliance.
“It is not unusual to require a fee in order to support the city’s endeavor to eliminate the unlawful massage that goes on,” Durkee said. “In doing so, we protect the legitimate massage therapists.”
Jodell Gabriel, who spent 24 years as a therapist and taught classes in Rock Valley College, was among those who urged leaders to rethink the ordinance. She said it unduly associates massage therapy with the sex trade.
“The state license already regulates massage by local entities and [requires] that only license massage therapists are working on the premises,” Gabriel said, noting that Rockford’s code enforcement officers are already using statute as a basis for existing inspections.
Gabriel said an ordinance aimed at curbing human trafficking should cast an even wider net and include businesses more associated with the trade.
“The sex trade and sex trafficking have one thing in common–prostitution,” she said. “Sex trafficking refers to transport for sexual exploitation. The current draft of the law does not include hotels and motels, and many enslaved people will be passing through on their way to other destinations.”
Several Rockford massage parlors and “spas” have been shut down by authorities over the years. Many were houses of prostitution operating out of storefronts where some of the “therapists” were illegal immigrants who lived onsite.
Penalties for those in violation of the new ordinance will be specified in the ordinance, which will be drafted by the city legal department. R.