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San Francisco Ends Bathhouse Restrictions 'as Part of COVID Recovery'


The city imposed "public nuisance" guidelines on gay sex venues during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously voted Tuesday to remove crippling restrictions on city bathhouses, declaring the revised guidelines would help the businesses "reopen as part of the city's COVID-19 economic recovery."

Officials declared the bathhouses a "public nuisance" in 1984 as AIDS ravaged the city. The City and County of San Francisco filed a lawsuit to close the venues, claiming many of the gay and bi patrons were engaging in unsafe sex practices. Court rulings left open the possibility for such businesses to remain open, but only if they employed monitors watching over the sex practices of customers and removed any private rooms, booths, or cubicles. The ruling led to the closure of all the city's bathhouses and, in 1997, the city's Department of Health upheld the '80s-era guidelines.

Many have called for the rules to be updated as HIV can be effectively prevented and treated through PrEP and antiretroviral regimens, respectively. Supervisor Rafael Mandelman championed the end of the old restrictions, saying it will help bathhouses and gay sex venues reopen and boost the COVID-ravaged economy.

“During the 1970s and early 80s bathhouses were a focal point of gay social life in San Francisco and were important community meeting places where friends would gather to share stories, dance to the latest disco hits or watch a live show,”  said Mandelman, who is gay and represents the Castro District, in a statement. “With many businesses closing due to COVID-19, I hope this legislation will make the operation of adult sex venues more feasible and will encourage the opening of new businesses that will aid in our economic recovery when it is safe to do so.” 

Joe Hollendoner, CEO of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, also welcomed the news, saying the city has taken enormous steps to slow HIV. The city recorded 197 new HIV cases in 2018; a 58 percent decrease from 2011.

“Bathhouses symbolize freedom for many in the queer community, and the ability for them to once again operate in San Francisco represents the tremendous advances our city has made in ending HIV transmissions,” Hollendoner said in a press release. “Whether it be breakthroughs like PrEP or U=U, members of our community now have more prevention options than when bathhouses were closed, and it is time for these outdated restrictions to be revised.”  

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