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San Francisco’s gay bathhouses can return after 35 years

San Francisco’s gay bathhouses can return after 35 years

  • City hopes the lifting of restrictions will boost the city’s COVID-19 economic recovery.
Three men in a pool.

San Francisco may finally see gay bathhouses return thanks to the city relaxing rules it brought in at the height of the AIDS crisis.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the city’s governing council, voted unanimously on Tuesday to remove the restrictions on saunas.

They hope the businesses will now ‘reopen as part of the city’s COVID-19 economic recovery’.

San Francisco lost its bathhouses in 1984 as AIDS overwhelmed the city’s LGBT+ population. The city and county branded the bathhouses ‘a public health nuisance’ and even sued bathhouse owners.

The court rulings in the lawsuit which followed technically allowed the bathhouses to remain open.

However, the rules meant that owners would have to employ monitors to watch over how customers were having sex. They would also have to remove private rooms, booths and cubicles.

As a result, the saunas couldn’t survive and they all closed. Moreover, the city’s Department of Health decided in 1997 to keep the restrictive rules.

Could bathhouses be ‘focal point of gay social life’ again?

However, gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who covers the historic LGBT+ Castro area, decided it’s time for a change.

In February he introduced new legislation. It jettisons rules against having locked doors for private rooms which sauna patrons use. And it also scraps the city’s demand that venues hire people to ensure nobody has unsafe sex on the premises.

Mandelman made the move before the coronavirus pandemic hit the US. However, he now hopes his plan will boost the city’s economic recovery.

He said: ‘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.

‘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.’

Reduced HIV infections help bathhouses to reopen

Indeed plummeting HIV transmissions in San Francisco have made Mandelman’s plan possible.

The city has benefited from HIV positive people being on effective treatment. That makes it impossible for them to pass on the virus. This is called U=U which means when treatment pushes the virus to ‘undetectable’ levels in your body it is ‘untransmittable’ to others.

Meanwhile, PrEP, a drug that massively reduces the risk of contracting HIV, has also pushed down new infections.

As a result, San Francisco announced that the number of new HIV diagnoses had fallen below 200 for the first time in 2018.

Moreover, the evidence shows monitoring sex in bathhouses has ‘little to no effect’ in preventing HIV.

Joe Hollendoner, CEO of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, also welcomed the new rules:

‘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.

‘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.’