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Smithtown proposes stricter rules for massage businesses

Town of Smithtown Councilman Thomas Lohmann, seen Friday,

Town of Smithtown Councilman Thomas Lohmann, seen Friday, said the town wants to make sure businesses are "doing the right thing." Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

Smithtown is proposing stricter regulations on massage establishments, a step that town officials said is intended to weed out those promoting sex work and unlicensed activity from those that are legitimate. 

“We’ve all read in the paper” about law enforcement investigations of businesses that found “extra activity beyond normal massage,” Councilman Thomas Lohmann said. Patrons looking for an actual massage also risk harm from masseurs without a license or training, he said. “We want to make sure the businesses are licensed and doing the right thing.”

New York State already regulates massage therapists, requiring them to complete 1,000 hours of education before they can be licensed. The proposed Smithtown law, scheduled for a public hearing on Tuesday, would require an additional town license for massage businesses and masseurs. Managers and masseurs would have to submit background information and any criminal history, and the businesses could not operate within 1,000 feet of each other. 

The law would set the license fee for a massage business at $750 with a $250 annual renewal, and a $25 fee for masseurs. Medical, sport and chair massage would be exempted, among others. 

There are 15 massage establishments in Smithtown, town officials said, with many concentrated in the Smithtown, St. James and Nesconset downtowns. 

Smithtown Public Safety Department investigators began looking into the businesses in 2015 after noticing an uptick in their number. 

They found 17 establishments without legitimate business filings, Public Safety Chief John Valentine wrote in an email. Some were practically invisible to authorities. Town officials discovered one illegal establishment in 2015 in a West Jericho Turnpike office building while making a fire alarm check. Twenty fire code violations were found at the establishment, officials told Newsday at the time. 

After a joint investigation with the Department of Homeland Security and Suffolk County law enforcement in 2017 and 2018, town investigators issued 85 court appearance tickets for fire and safety violations and closed five establishments for illegal activity and safety hazards. Through surveillance, they learned that many of the establishments’ employees were women taken to work by vans registered to addresses in Flushing, Queens, Valentine wrote. 

Joel R. Salinger, a Commack lawyer who has represented clients accused of practicing massage without a license, said there are massage businesses within the town that are “very good, very reputable and follow the rules.” As long as the proposed law “is going to health, cleanliness and keeping the public safe, I have no problem with it.”

Babylon Town and Farmingdale Village have imposed licensing regulations on massage establishments in recent years. A Babylon Town spokesman told Newsday in 2016 that they were needed because the prior strategy of enforcement with code violations let scofflaw establishments remain open or close and reopen elsewhere. This past March, four Babylon establishments were closed and 38 violations and summonses were issued to seven establishments after an investigation led by Babylon’s Quality of Life Task Force.

Massage Establishment Initiative

2015: Smithtown Public Safety starts investigation, finds 17 establishments without legitimate business filings.

2017-2018: Joint investigation with federal and county authorities leads to closure of five establishments, 85 court appearance tickets.

2019: Proposed regulations for heightened vetting of operators and employees.

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