Davenport officials may soon give local law enforcement the ability to shutter massage businesses that aren’t run by state-licensed operators as a way to crack down on prostitution rings that operate under the guise of being legitimate massage therapists.
The idea was discussed Tuesday during a routine afternoon meeting between city council members and city staff, an early step in what could become a proposed city ordinance in the near future. As council members heard different enforcement options, city officials repeatedly referenced a desire to rid the city of any illegal businesses without putting too many regulatory hurdles on legitimate ones.
No concrete details about the prevalence of illicit massage therapy in Davenport were presented during Tuesday’s meeting. However, the city has seen the total number of massage businesses grow significantly over the past years, and city officials have found potential issues during site visits in recent months, said Davenport City Administrator Corri Spiegel.
“This is an emerging issue for us,” Spiegel said. “We’ve seen a doubling of these types of businesses in the city really over the past year.”
City officials are planning to model a policy after an ordinance enacted in Des Moines last month. That rule gives Des Moines police the ability to shut down businesses that have not been licensed by the Iowa Board of Massage Therapy, which regulates individuals who practice the profession.
The proposal to create a rule in Davenport comes as other cities across the state have sought to put similar safeguards in place.
In 2017, Iowa lawmakers gave cities additional authority to create their own business licensing systems, legislation that was inspired by a city ordinance created by Johnston a few years ago. Other Iowa cities have taken similar routes to license businesses and do background checks.
But that’s not the route Davenport officials are advising.
Sarah Ott, an assistant city administrator who has been studying how to draft a massage therapy business ordinance, told council members that the method of business licensing can be “pretty cumbersome” for legitimate operators. She also said more regulatory requirements for businesses may leave the city with fewer resources to enforce policies that target “bad actors.”