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San Francisco’s mayor says he’s “open” to allowing bathhouses in the city again

San Francisco’s mayor says he’s “open” to allowing bathhouses in the city again
Ed Lee
Ed Lee

After a 30-year ban, the city of San Francisco may see its historic bathhouses reopened.

In 1984, during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, a San Francisco Superior Court judge effectively banned bathhouses by ordering them to remove all doors from private rooms so that staff could make sure patrons were practicing safe sex.

Now, Mayor Ed Lee tells the Bay Area Reporter that he is “open” to the idea of doing away with that rule and allowing bathhouses to once again operate within city limits. But, like always, there’s a catch. Lee says public health officials must be on board, as well.

“The issue about bathhouses and so forth that is an item that blends entertainment along with safe sex,” said Lee. “I have got to have experts telling me that is something they wouldn’t have a problem with. I would be open to it, but I have got to have that kind of process.”

The city recently announced its Getting to Zero initiative, which aims to reduce new HIV infections by 90 percent over the next five years. The fear is that reopening bathhouses could hurt that initiative.

So far, the City’s Department of Public Health says it has not changed its position regarding the ban on gay bathhouses, which are described as “a business where customers pay for communal sauna, steam, or numerous other types of baths,” citing the Getting to Zero initiative as its reason.

But not everyone agrees. Buzz Bense, a former co-owner of Eros, one of the city’s last remaining gay sex clubs, says the City’s Department of Public Health will never get on board.

“This isn’t about health science,” he claims. “It is about politics.”

He also suggested that lifting the ban would be futile anyway, given the skyrocketing cost of real estate in the Bay Area.

“Where the fuck can you buy a big building for less than a gillion dollars to open a bathhouse?” he said.

But Lee maintains the city’s strict governing over bathhouses is not designed to prevent the businesses from opening, but rather to reduce the number of new HIV infections.

“If they feel there is a blockage, it is probably because public health is so concentrated in getting to zero with me,” he said.

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