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As Fargo regulates massage businesses, some may still be unlicensed

So far, 77 massage establishments have been licensed, according to Fargo Cass Public Health. Another 12 applications are pending, which means those businesses still need to pay their licensing fee and pass an inspection.

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Stephanie Ramsey gives a massage to a client at In Balance Therapeutic Massage in Fargo on Nov. 11, 2021.
David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO — The deadline for Fargo's massage businesses to apply for city-issued licenses has passed, but city officials say there may still be unlicensed businesses out there that they're trying to find.

Massage establishments had until Sept. 1 to identify their business to Fargo Cass Public Health. Grant Larson, the agency's director of environmental health, said it was a bit of a soft deadline because the city wants to ensure all businesses have had the chance to learn about the new licensing requirement and fill out the needed paperwork.

“You don’t know until you get into the field how many you have to license,” Larson said, adding that the city doesn't know if they've managed to make contact with all the massage establishments yet, but he is hopeful that any they have missed will come forward.

The new ordinance requires massage establishments to get a license this year to continue operating. This ordinance does not apply to massage therapists based out of their homes, according to Larson.

So far, 77 massage establishments have been licensed, Larson said. Inflating the number of licenses are many independent massage therapists who have their own licensed businesses but work out of shared facilities.

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Another 12 applications are pending, which means those businesses still need to pay their licensing fee and pass an inspection.

To get a license, the owner of an establishment must pass a background check. No red flags have popped up so far with background checks of owners, according to Larson.

Should a business fail to comply with the licensing requirements and continue to conduct business, Larson said the city would pursue legal action against them.

He hopes it never comes to that.

“We’re trying to … assist owners of massage establishments to get them successfully licensed without having to implement those means,” Larson said.

“We had some concerns and a lot of questions,” Larson said, noting that once all establishments are licensed, city officials will invite owners to a meeting to hear ideas for changes to the system.

The gap in the previous licensing structure meant that, while each individual massage therapist is required to obtain a state license to practice, there was no local licensing for the establishments they worked in, according to Larson.

Under the new system, customers will know that a Fargo massage business employs state-certified massage therapists and operates a city-inspected establishment, Larson said.

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In 2021, the City Commission voted 3-2 to pass the ordinance, intended to prevent massage establishments in Fargo from employing unlicensed individuals. As part of the ordinance, businesses must provide a list of their employees to the city.

In addition, local concerns of human trafficking in massage parlors inflamed the conversation.

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Fargo Police Chief David Zibolski talks Nov. 2, 2021.
Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Police Chief Dave Zibolski said at the time that this ordinance would decrease occurrences of human trafficking by allowing legitimate local businesses to thrive while stopping illegitimate businesses.

Some licensed massage therapists had concerns about the ordinance from the start , calling it intolerable.

“The ordinance makes businesses providing services by licensed massage therapists equal to massage parlors that are suspected of providing prostitution,” wrote a group of massage therapists in a 2019 Forum letter to the editor .

Among that group was Stephanie Ramsey, owner of In Balance Therapeutic Massage, who spoke against the ordinance when it was first proposed because she believed the city was conflating legitimate businesses with sex trafficking.

Now Ramsey says the licensing process is going smoothly. The only thing she had to change in her business to get her license was posting her hours on the door, she said.

Normally the cost of a license is $100 dollars a year, but for 2022-2023 the city is charging half that to help get the program running. The fees are used to help pay for the city inspections, Larson said.

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