City Council passes ordinance regulating Tampa’s ‘massage’ industry after 8 On Your Side investigation

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Nine months after an 8 On Your Side investigation pulled back the curtain on the business of sex on Kennedy Boulevard, Tampa’s city council has approved an ordinance that cracks down on prostitution and human trafficking in the city’s massage parlors.

“I would like Tampa to be known as a city, if people look at the city, if you’re in the business of exploitation, then Tampa is a bad place to set up shop,” said Clean Up Kennedy founder Joe Manson, shortly before the city council voted unanimously to approve a new bathhouse ordinance.

That measure prohibits sexual activity in spas, forces them to close at 10 p.m. and requires owners, staff and customers to register with the city. It also enables city staff to conduct inspections on the businesses in question.

Former human trafficking victim turned activist Krista Hernandez praised the measure for exposing “johns” to public scrutiny as a way of deterring the sex trade in massage spas.

“Tampa, we have a chance to be the change and take this nationally to where these buyers are being registered as sex buyers and that’s going to help eliminate this issue,” Hernandez told the city council.

A group called the Sex Workers Solidarity Network recently started opposing the proposed bathhouse regulations because its members believe it will unjustly punish and stigmatize human trafficking victims.

“You claim this ordinance will not throw human trafficking victims in jail, but really, how do you make that distinction if you find illicit activity, coerced or otherwise. Isn’t the general tactic to arrest first and ask questions later? Every mug shot is public record,” said exotic dancer and sex activist Julie Solace.

City Council Member Mike Suarez told Solace and others that’s not at all the point of the new regulations.

“It is not about criminalizing people who are victims of sexual trafficking,” Suarez said.”It really is about the community coming together to say ‘we want this to stop.'”

The revised bathhouse regulations now await the signature of Mayor Bob Buckhorn. Buckhorn’s spokeswoman said she doesn’t believe Buckhorn has any objections.

Assistant City Attorney Mike Schmidt tells News Channel 8 the city will have to set fees and it will take at least one month before businesses can register to become regulated under the revised ordinance.

So far, none of the massage spa business owners we’ve reached out to would comment about the new regulation.

In 2017, 8 On Your Side revealed one of the properties where prostitution allegedly occurred was owned by Tampa Public Nuisance Abatement Board member Rick Barcena.

The Asian spa on Barcena’s property closed around a month ago and the site is now vacant. Last year, Barcena’s attorney told 8 On Your Side Barcena had no idea anything illegal was going on inside the spa on his property.

Human Trafficking activists say there are plans for a prostitution diversion court underway, as well as more outreach programs for victims.

The bathhouse ordinance is just the first step to solve a problem we first uncovered nine months ago in our Storefronts for Sex investigation.

“Its really the beginning,”said Tampa Council Chairman Harry Cohen. “Not the end.”

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