Post Pandemic, Will Ailing Gay Bathhouses Make a Comeback?

by Naveen Kumar

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday April 5, 2021
Originally published on March 18, 2021

Post Pandemic, Will Ailing Gay Bathhouses Make a Comeback?
  (Source:Getty Images)

In July 2020, San Francisco lifted restrictions that had effectively barred gay bathhouses from operating there for over three decades. For owners of public sex venues, would-be patrons, and anyone who considers that San Francisco is literally the gayest city in the country, the legislation was historic. Its timing, of course, could not have been more curious.

The bygone regulations, which prohibited locked doors and unmonitored play spaces, had been in place since 1984, as HIV/AIDS decimated the queer community, paranoia was near a fever pitch, and reliable information remained scarce. As public health measures, the rules were incredibly misguided. Bathhouses, and other businesses that facilitate sexual contact, have since proven to be pivotal vectors for disseminating health information and facilitating screening and prevention measures for HIV and other STIs.

That San Francisco's reversal came as another epoch-defining virus circled the globe seemed like a cosmic course correction. There was some confusion at first. A few critics were outraged at the idea that public sex might be happening in person while public school was not. The July legislation has simply allowed for new bathhouses to potentially break ground and operate in the future, however, once coronavirus conditions allow for other types of businesses to open as well.

The pandemic has been disastrous for LGBTQ businesses, which are weathering dire straits like much of the economy, from bars and hotels to retail. Many nightlife venues have thrown in the towel or are relying on the life support of crowd-funding campaigns. COVID-19 has only accelerated an alarming trend; research suggests that the number of bars serving LGBTQ patrons has declined by nearly 40% since 2007, due in part to gentrification, the rise of digital means for social and sexual connection, and broader overall acceptance lessening the need for queer safe spaces, particularly in urban areas.

Currently, the majority of bathhouses and sex clubs in the U.S. are either closed or operating at limited capacity. Some have shuttered permanently, including, most recently, New York City's historic Westside Club. Watergarden in San Jose, Calif, and Crew Club in D.C. are gone, too, with more likely to follow. In so many ways, the road ahead for these businesses looks challenging and uncertain. But COVID-19 has upended life as we know it, and bathhouses facilitate two social needs that have been thrown into especially sharp relief: Sex and public health consciousness.

A History of Public Health Intervention

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Though many sectors of the service industry, from restaurants to salons, operate under government health regulations, few have a similar history to bathhouses of direct intervention during an acute public health crisis. Venues that facilitated on-premises sex became crucial centers for information and prevention during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and long afterward. Free condoms, STI testing, clear guidance about safe sex, and, more recently, information about PrEP, are all standard practice at bathhouses and similar facilities.

"The bathhouses participated in making sure people knew how to prevent HIV transmission, and provided an environment in which you could choose to prevent infection by having condoms and testing available," says William Woods, Ph.D., professor emeritus of medicine at UCSF, who specialized in HIV prevention research. Attention toward halting the transmission of deadly disease became a built-in part of running public sex venues. That's new territory for nearly every other type of business when it comes to slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

HIV and COVID-19 obviously pose very different threats to public health: transmission through respiratory droplets makes the coronavirus everyone's concern. But while everyday businesses from big box stores to banks recently experienced a crash course in safeguarding patron health — with mask requirements, social distancing, enhanced cleaning measures, and the like — bathhouses have been operating with an eye toward disease prevention for decades.

"Replace the condoms with masks, and instead of just bathhouses asking people to change their behavior and use protections, other public environments like airplanes, grocery stores, and churches are all doing that same thing," Woods says.

Bathhouses, in other words, already had a head start on what has become a whole new way of doing business under the threat of COVID-19. Notably, most of them have existing relationships with local health officials.

"Bathhouses have been working hand in hand with public health for over 30 years," says Chris S., board president of the North American Bathhouse Association (NABA), who asked not to be identified by his last name. "Most of us have public health officials on speed dial." In fact, the crackdown and closures that bathhouses and sex clubs faced in the 1980s meant those that survived have been hyperaware of operating in accordance with local health regulations. Not only would violations risk sanction, but patrons wouldn't likely flock to establishments that had been cited for flouting cleanliness or safety.

Bathhouses may be more likely than churches to be stigmatized as potential sites of coronavirus spread, despite proof religious services have facilitated multiple superspreader events. But due to their close relationships with local health departments, there's little reason to believe bathhouses will face greater hurdles to reopening than other types of businesses.

"Regulators can decline to allow bathhouses to operate any time they wish," Woods says. "But I don't believe they would use the current pandemic as a reason to keep them closed."

Masked for Masked: How Bathhouses Are Handling Pandemic Operations

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Despite the intimacy of physical contact inherent to public sex venues, Chris suggests bathhouses offer heightened levels of COVID safety in several ways.

"If you think about it, bathhouses are probably one of the cleanest places to engage someone," Chris says. Bathhouses tend to be equipped with sophisticated air filtration systems, like HVAC with UV filters, to reduce humidity and the risk of unpleasant smells. That's better air quality than might reasonably be expected of many indoor spaces, from retail shops to hotel lobbies.

Around half of the 35 to 50 bathhouses with membership to NABA, which offers logistical and community support to owners and managers, are currently operational, Chris says. Regulations vary by state, but most are licensed as gyms or health clubs and subject to the same restrictions. As the country continues its piecemeal approach to reopening, some are back in operation after long closures and others still in a waiting game. While venues in Georgia, Texas, and Florida are all open, for example, many locations in states with stricter COVID regulations, like California and Illinois, remain closed.

Of the bathhouses that are open around the country, Chris says none are operating at full capacity, with reduced numbers allowed in locker rooms and other areas. Saunas and steam rooms are mostly closed, and Chris estimates that more than 70% of all play spaces are as well. Masks are required to walk around, and he says enforcement has been strong even between patrons, who don't want to see the establishments close. The venues' chief attraction, private rooms, operate much like a hotel — what happens behind a closed door is up to you.

Gay resorts that offer bathhouse amenities alongside more traditional hotel stays are also operating under local COVID-safety regulations. At Island House in Key West, resort guests are required to wear face coverings unless they're using facilities like the sauna or gym, which are capped at two and three guests each, respectively. "Social distancing and respect for other guests and staff is mandated," according to the resort's website. Outside visitors to hotel guests are permitted, but they must register with the front desk and sign a waiver. Temperature checks may be required of anyone who enters the premises.

In addition to masks and a tendency toward personal hygiene, Chris points to temperature checks and collection of identification as routine practice (the latter could potentially facilitate contact tracing). NABA has advised members on strategies to enhance procedures even further. PPE and safety protocol to protect venue employees remains paramount as well. The prevalence of asymptomatic spread means that temperature checks and self-reporting symptoms may add up to half-measures, though they remain the standard baseline for many businesses.

Bathhouse partnerships with local health officials that include on-site STI screenings could eventually extend to include COVID testing or other interventions, Chris suggests. In many cases, that infrastructure already exists, with designated areas where patrons know they can access health services. In fact, at least a few bathhouses may be on the verge of serving an even more vital role in combating the pandemic.

Beyond Glory Holes: Could Bathhouses Bounce Back?

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Health officials in at least two cities have recognized that certain local facilities, sitting empty with dozens of private rooms, might be useful for a particularly urgent effort: COVID vaccination. According to Chris, locations in Chicago and Toronto have been surveyed by health departments as potential sites for the administration of COVID vaccines, though no decisions have yet been made.

Regardless of outcome, bathhouses landing on a short list of potential vaccination sites demonstrates the level of cooperation and trust they've developed with public health officials since the 1980s. The misconceptions behind San Francisco's former bathhouse ban had become more and more apparent by the time City Supervisor Rafael Mandelman spearheaded the recent legislation to overturn it.

"It became clear, not just to advocates but also to the department [of health], that public health rationale for keeping bathhouses closed, whether or not it was valid in the first place, was not valid in 2018, when this conversation started," Mandelman says. The timing of the bill's ultimate passage two years later, during the coronavirus pandemic, may have been coincidental. But it has raised the question of what role such businesses could play in that city's eventual recovery, and the future outlook for public sex venues around the U.S.

"I do think that really well-run bathhouses could actually be a great part of reviving some of San Francisco's historically queer neighborhoods," Mandelman says. The flip side of an economic downturn is a shakeup of the status quo, and potential for new business ventures down the road. "I do think that this is a moment, maybe in other places too, where there is such a blank slate in terms of vacant space," Mandelman says, "and a willingness on the part of government to think about new ways of doing things."

But opening a new bathhouse is expensive and complex, perhaps prohibitively so, even for experienced owners. Banks won't lend to them based on the nature of their business, Chris says, so capital would be needed upfront at a time when business owners are still suffering.

"I wouldn't say any of us are excited yet," Chris says, though he considers that perhaps once COVID recedes and cash flows stabilize, a consortium of existing bathhouse owners might be able to pull it off. (An abandoned gym, which already has the necessary plumbing he says, would be their best bet.)

In addition to potential economic drivers, bathhouses will likely continue to serve as meaningful centers of community, fostering social and sexual connections that affirm identity and benefit mental health. Maybe even more so, considering how eager people will be for sexual contact and potentially tired of looking for it online. "People have pointed out that the roaring '20s followed the [1918 flu] pandemic," Mandelman says, and that prolonged social isolation may have made people hungrier for connection.

Despite tough times, Chris says nearly all of NABA's surviving members have invested in renovations with an eye toward eventual reopening, from modest touch-ups to new saunas and re-tiled showers. Glory holes will abound, of course, along with other play spaces that may be creatively constructed with both sex and safety in mind. But playgrounds without patrons could amount to all potential and no payoff. As the dust settles on turbulent times, the question remains: If they build it, will we come?

"As an industry, we're hoping that business comes back maybe even better than before, because people realize we need these spaces," Chris says. "You don't value it until it's gone."

Naveen Kumar is a culture writer and editor whose recent work appears on, The Daily Beast, The Hollywood Reporter, and The New York Times.