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Enforcement of Pawtucket massage parlor ordinance stalled

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PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) – In August, the Pawtucket City Council passed an ordinance giving the city the power to regulate and license so-called “Body Works” spas, including massage parlors that officials believe offer sexual favors to clients.

Mayor Donald Grebien originally vetoed the ordinance, and the Council unanimously overrode that veto.

“There are massage parlors in our city that are being advertised in sexual websites offering sexual favors,” said City Councilor Sandra Cano.

Three months later, those businesses remain open. Mayor Donald Grebien’s administration says they cannot enforce the ordinance because of the way it’s worded.

“We just want to avoid any long-term costs and liabilities,” said Public Safety Director Antonio Pires in an interview with Eyewitness News. Pires says Pawtucket Police are working to close illegal massage parlors, using existing means like zoning ordinances and prostitution laws. But he says the way the current “Body Works” ordinance is written is too broad.

“Really, it applies to YMCAs and other health spas,” he said.

The ordinance requires businesses to be licensed and regulated if they have “pools, baths, saunas, dry saunas, towel treatments, showers, body scrubs and body showers.” It excludes certain medical professionals, athletic trainers, hairdressers, manicurists and licensed massage therapists.

Pires says in theory, spas that are closed under the ordinance could sue the city– and would likely win that lawsuit.

The businesses of concern in Pawtucket offer “body” services that don’t necessarily fall under the state’s massage licensing law. Pires says the city has identified several that are fronting for brothels. Eyewitness News found advertisements for those Pawtucket businesses on Adult Entertainment websites. The ads included inappropriate photos of women and suggestive wording.

Pires says while police can arrest people for prostitution, it’s difficult to prove–and doesn’t prevent more massage parlors from opening.

Ideally, both Pires and Cano say they want the State Legislature to pass a law allowing communities to license and regulate these spas. In the meantime, the Pawtucket Ordinance committee will work on re-phrasing the current ordinance, so the administration can enforce it.

“We want to make sure these places are closed, so the victims can be relieved and in a better position to be saved,” Councilor Cano said.

If the Council isn’t able to pass an ordinance the city will enforce, City Councilor Tim Rudd says the City Council would need to go to the courts to get the city to enforce it.