The Advocate July/Aug 2022
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San Francisco Lifts Gay Bathhouse Ban


San Francisco has lifted its long-standing ban on bathhouses.

The Golden City's health department removed lingering rules from the early years of the AIDS epidemic that forbade private locked rooms and mandated surveillance of patrons in said establishments. These guidelines, established in the mid-1980s to curtail queer sex in response to the crisis, essentially amounted to a ban.

At present, there is only one operating bathhouse in the Bay Area — Steamworks in Berkeley, Calif., which is currently nonoperational due to pandemic restrictions. There is also a sex club, Eros, in the Castro gayborhood, which had complied with the aforementioned rules.

However, the rescinded guidelines now make it possible for operators to submit permits requesting the establishment of traditional bathhouses, which includes locked private rooms.

Rafael Mandelman, the supervisor of District 8, which encompasses the Castro, began lobbying to remove the bathhouse ban last year. He was informed of his campaign's success by city officials last week.

"It is symbolically significant right now. Whether it is significant on the ground depends on if entrepreneurs with the vision and financial capacities and the savvy to open can and operate one of these," Mandelman told The Bay Area Reporter

The politician also shared with the local newspaper a corresponding city document, "Minimum Standards for Operation of Sex Clubs, Commercial Sex Venues and Parties," which is yet to be released publicly.

The new guidelines, according to the Reporter, require bathhouse operators to list and discourage sexual activities that pose a risk for HIV and other STIs, such as condomless anal and vaginal sex and fisting without gloves. These precautions must be displayed in the venues in multiple languages, including English, Chinese, Spanish, and Tagalog.

Upon entering, patrons must sign an agreement acknowledging the restricted sexual activities. Additionally, onsite sex work and alcohol consumption are forbidden. Customers cannot enter inebriated. And the venue must also provide free lube and condoms in addition to hot and cold water, soap, and towels. 

The rule change comes at a time when many LGBTQ+ neighborhoods — and gay bars and bathhouses — are being decimated by the economic consequences of the pandemic. While San Francisco is currently in lockdown, California Gov. Gavin Newsom's easing of restrictions this week has allowed the city to plan to reopen some businesses, including outdoor dining.  

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