Massage businesses operating in Denver will have to be licensed by July 1 under a new city requirement.
The new license, approved by Denver City Council in July of 2021, is a tool to help authorities battle human trafficking that takes place at illicit massage businesses, according to city officials and police.
Since 2019, the Denver Police Department has contacted about 25 potential victims of sex trafficking linked to bad businesses, police said. Over the same time, 12 defendants have been charged in Denver with felonies as part of criminal investigations into human trafficking.
“The new massage business license gives us a much-needed tool in our efforts to combat illicit massage businesses and prevent crimes of human trafficking from occurring to persons in Denver,” said Sgt. Aaron Kafer, with the department’s human trafficking unit. “We recognize many of the individuals presently working at illicit massage businesses may be experiencing exploitation rising to the level of human trafficking. This new approach strives to be victim-centered by focusing enforcement actions on the persons profiting from illicit massage schemes.”
Kafer estimates there are about 140 massage business operating in Denver and about one-quarter of them are illicit, where prostitution and human trafficking are committed.
Businesswoman Sandy Stroehmann has owned and operated Elixir Mind Body Massage in Lower Downtown for the past 15 years.
Stroehmann has worked hard growing and expanding her legitimate “spa-like” business, which includes facials, saunas and other wellness offerings along with massages. She works with and employs multiple massage therapists.
“Mostly what we do is massage,” Stroehmann said.
“I’m hoping that it makes a difference,” she said of the new licensing requirement. “I don’t know that it will, but nobody wants human trafficking.”
Massage businesses where a state-licensed massage therapist practices as a solo practitioner are not required to obtain a Denver license.
Other exceptions are:
- Public and private schools accredited by the state board of education or approved by the state division of private occupational schools.
- Training rooms of a recognized professional or amateur sports organization, dance troupe, bona fide athletic club, or other such athletic organization.
- Facilities providing massage services by employees of any governmental entity.
The Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies requires individual licensing for massage therapists, but there is no state licensing requirement for businesses where massage therapy is practiced.
“There are several instances where you don’t have to have it (new license),” said Eric Escudero, communications director, Denver Department of Excise and Licenses. “It’s not for those who are already regulated, it’s for those who are not regulated.”
A massage business in Denver that has multiple therapists practicing under a singular business name or group will soon be required to have the license. There’s an initial application fee of $500 and an annual license fee of $250.
Denver businesses can apply for the newly required license online. Stroehmann describes the process as “cumbersome.”
“I’m in the process of trying to finish it now, it’s a lot,” she said. “The instructions are pretty poor and it’s really frustrating. It’s a government process, I understand why they need it. Some of these bad actors hide behind multiple companies. I understand, but it’s a lot.”
The business license will help Denver authorities get out in front of, and stop, illicit businesses from opening by identifying unacceptable potential owners through criminal background checks and denying them a license, Kafer said.
The license and regulations connected to it, including inspections, will help city officials keep better track of massage businesses and help to cut down on illicit players. It will also ease the process of shutting down illegal businesses by having the ability to pull a license, as opposed to going through sometimes time-consuming public nuisance abatement processes.
New license applications will require an inspection by city departments — excise and licenses, community planning and development, and Denver fire. Police will conduct compliance inspections when human trafficking complaints are received. The new fees will cover compliance inspections and license administration, according to the city.
Aurora imposed a similar license for massage businesses in 2018 to combat human trafficking.
Denver officials have worked with Aurora and other metro area agencies in hope of expanding massage license requirements for businesses.
“We’ve worked with them collaboratively. Hopefully, we can make an impact regionally,” Kafer said. “We’re hopeful we are going in the the right direction with other municipalities as well.”