Metro Weekly

San Francisco lifts its decades-long ban on gay bathhouses

Establishments will be allowed to have private rooms, but must provide free safe-sex materials and wash-up facilities

san francisco, bathhouse, gay, sauna
A sign at Eros, a San Francisco bathhouse that has been abiding by the old regulations that were recently repealed. – Photo: Eros, via Facebook

For the first time in four decades, operators of traditional gay bathhouses will be allowed to seek permits to open in San Francisco.

Since the 1980s, the city had kept in place longstanding restrictions, introduced during the height of the AIDS epidemic and enforced by the city’s Department of Public Health, that prohibited bathhouses from having private rooms with locked doors.

Proprietors were expected, and even required, to monitor the sexual acts of their patrons, to ensure they were using condoms during sex. Because the regulations were viewed as intrusive, what happened was that many traditional bathhouses fled San Francisco, instead setting up in nearby cities like Berkeley and San Jose.

While gay sex clubs without private, locked rooms continued to operate in the city, most eventually closed. Currently, only one — Eros, on Market Street in the Castro district — is operational.

The bathhouses that set up in other nearby cities have since been forced to permanently shutter due to the loss of business stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving only Steamworks, in Berkeley — which is currently closed, but not out of business, due to the pandemic, according to the Bay Area Reporter.

Last year, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance to lift the ban on traditional bathhouses, allowing them to have private rooms while imposing additional regulations to better protect public health and promote the safety of patrons.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro neighborhood and proposed the repeal of the ban, told Metro Weekly in an interview last year that the regulations needed to be updated to reflect changes in how HIV is viewed as a treatable medical condition, the advent of antiretrovirals and PrEP, which help prevent HIV from being transmitted, and the advent of apps that allow people to have private sex parties, which are not subject to any regulation.

He also refuted criticism that lifting the ban would lead to an increase in HIV and other STDs, saying that the city’s efforts to increase testing and make treatment more accessible will help prevent the spread of such diseases, and are not likely to be impacted by the presence of bathhouses, especially if people are already engaging in safer sex practices, like using condoms or PrEP.

The legislation initially called for the city’s Department of Public Health to adopt new regulations by Jan. 1. That deadline was extended to allows health officials to deal with a surge of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, as well as lower staffing due to the holidays. Last week, health officials informed Mandelman’s office that the new regulations were completed.

See also: California Democrat introduces bill to end insurance discrimination against people with HIV

Under the new regulations, establishments will be required to post notices and signs at the entrances and throughout the venues alerting people to activities that post a risk for HIV and other STDs, including condomless sex and fisting without a latex glove. Those notices must be displaying in English, Chinese, Spanish, and Tagalog.

Patrons of bathhouses will be required to state in writing that they agree to adhere to posted rules regarding prohibited sexual activities, and will be informed of consequences for noncompliance.

Patrons must have valid IDs showing they are 18 years of age or older, and will be barred from entering if they are intoxicated or under the influence. Consumption of alcohol or other substances will be prohibited, even in cases where a third party rents out a venue for a private party.

Other regulations ban exchanging sex for money or free entry, and safe-sex materials, like lubricant and condoms, must be provided free of charge. Any establishment with private rooms must have those materials stocked in each room.

Additionally, all establishments must provide wash-up facilities for patrons, with access to hot and cold water, liquid soap, hand sanitizer, and paper towels.

In speaking with Metro Weekly, Mandelman said that he’s been approached by people who are interested in seeing the return of bathhouses to the city, and believe that four-decade-old restrictions simply don’t make sense.

He also said he hopes that newer regulations will enable bathhouses to serve as a source of reliable information on safer-sex practices for people in the community who may be uninformed or misinformed by unreliable information online. 

“One of the benefits, one of the great things that earlier generations, or people who’ve lived in communities that never closed the baths, say is that they were at a community gathering place,” Mandelman said. “And they can be a place where health messaging is shared.”

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