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Licensed massage therapists fighting proposed Fargo city ordinance that includes inspections

City commissioners to debate new requirements in city

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Stephanie Ramsey gives a message to a client at In Balance Therapeutic Massage in Fargo on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021. David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO — Stephanie Ramsey, who has been a licensed massage therapist for 23 years, doesn't support a new ordinance for her profession that the Fargo City Commission will consider for the first time Monday night, Nov. 15.

She thinks the requirements, including at-will inspections by city departments, are a violation of her clients' confidentiality and health care privacy.

Her preference would be for the state Legislature to tackle the issue and simply require all massage businesses in the state to have licensed therapists or face penalties.

Even further, she would like to see all states across the country have such regulations.

The operator of In Balance Therapeutic Massage points out that she already operates under licensure from the longstanding North Dakota Board of Massage Therapy as well as the national association.

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The state board conducts inspections, too, and requires a series of standards including hundreds of hours of educational courses and continuing updates in their profession.

"I was shocked to find out that you can do massages without a license," Ramsey said from the peaceful atmosphere of the office she operates with two co-workers in southwest Fargo.

"I have to stick up for my profession," she said about any attempts to change what's been working.

She compared her profession to medical doctors, for example, who are governed by their state board, not the city, for any reports of violations.

Grant Larson, director of environmental health for Fargo Cass Public Health that handles health-related inspections of other businesses, agrees that each of the 60 to 70 massage establishments in Fargo should have licensed therapists.

He believes the proposed ordinance, which also requires an annual city license, is needed so the city can check if the operators are licensed as well as to make sure the businesses are sanitary and well-maintained with proper display of their licenses.

Larson was given the task of writing the ordinance and requirements that have been in the works for at least eight months since a contentious public hearing with massage therapists on the proposed ordinance kicked off the debate.

Since, he said he has been working with massage therapists and has revamped an original proposal.

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Yet Ramsey, former massage therapist Steve Olson and City Commissioner John Strand said they still don't buy into the city overseeing their operations when it's already done by the state board.

Olson, who operated his massage therapy business for 31 years in Fargo before retiring in 2016 and who has served as president of the national association, said the state board has been adequately overseeing massage therapists, which number about 750 statewide, for 62 years.

As for the businesses that don't have licensed therapists, he said "go right ahead" and inspect their operations.

He said those massage businesses "aren't the same thing," compared to the state-board-licensed massage therapists.

Illicit activity?

So how did it come about that the city would wade into the massage business issue? It's the elephant in the room in the debate over the ordinance.

According to Larson, there were numerous letters sent to city officials a few years back mostly because of concerns about human trafficking and massages being done with sexual favors.

Strand and licensed massage therapists will tell anyone they believe the illicit massages are a taint on the profession, and have been for years — and are also not likely to go away.

Still, some of the therapists in the earlier public hearing found the insinuation that a city ordinance for licensed practitioners to abstain from illicit activity is needed to be distasteful.

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The language in the city ordinance's "prohibited massage" clause states "a massage therapist must not intentionally massage or offer to massage the penis, scrotum, mon veneris, vulva or vaginal area of an individual." If done, a license to do business could be suspended or revoked.

Larson said he simply was tasked with trying to come up with a nonbiased ordinance that also aims to prevent illicit activity.

Inspections

Another clause in the ordinance requires establishments to "allow inspections by the public health department, inspections department, fire department and the police department or their designees."

If not allowed in for inspections, the business could have their license suspended or revoked.

The inspection portion of the ordinance addresses 20 requirements such as sanitary conditions, displaying of valid licenses, proper covering of clients during massage treatments and having all equipment in working order.

Strand said he first contacted "people in the know" when he became aware of the massage ordinance, including Olson, whom he admits is a friend.

He is well aware of the human trafficking concern but is also worried about an "inadvertent connection" between the licensed massage therapy profession and trafficking.

The city commissioner said the ordinance perhaps "isn't ready to be vetted yet."

Some of his other concerns are that therapists might move to West Fargo, for example, if they are subjected to the new regulations. He also wonders if the issue shouldn't be handled on the state level.

The ordinance, like others, will require a public hearing and two readings before it could take effect if it receives an initial OK.

Olson and two other therapists in an email urged their colleagues to contact the commissioners and speak up at upcoming meetings.

An almost 50-year veteran of the newspaper business, Amundson has worked for The Forum and Forum News Service for 15 years. He started as a sport reporter in Minnesota. He is currently the city and night reporter for The Forum. bamundson@forumcomm.com 701-451-5665
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