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Bemidji City Council to reconsider massage ordinance

After some massage therapists described an annual physical exam requirement as degrading and insulting, the Bemidji City Council agreed Monday to reconsider its massage ordinance.

Councilors voted 6-0 to direct staff to meet with a handful of massage therapists to consider the existing massage ordinance and possibly suggest revisions for it.

Ten massage therapists attended the council and were split 6-4 on whether the requirement for an annual physical exam was beneficial (the majority were opposed to the exam).

"I think it is totally outdated and, quite frankly, it's offensive," said Jamie Listebarger, who teaches massage therapy at Northwest Technical College.

Others said the requirement for an annual physical exam protects the massage therapists.

Jeanne Engen Duranske with the Center for Optimum Health said she has been working as a massage therapist for 24 years.

"It's a positive for us as well," she said, referring to the requirement of annual exams.

Duranske said she is certified to work with customers who are HIV positive, and while she takes precautions and is careful, the annual exams verify that she is healthy.

The council decided to review the ordinance after Paul and Rita Scholl of Living Touch Massage asked councilors to consider whether the ordinance should specifically address reflexologists and to further explain the annual medical exam requirement.

Reflexology, according to Wikipedia, is the practice of massaging or pushing on certain parts of the feet, hands or ears with the goal of encouraging a beneficial effect on other parts of the body or to improve general health.

The city ordinance, last revised in 2004, does not now specifically address reflexology.

The ordinance does, however require an annual physical exam of all massage therapists. The physician must sign a form stating that "the applicant is free of communicable disease," according to the ordinance.

"It seems like an odd, out-of-the-ordinary requirement to me," said City Councilor Nancy Erickson.

She questioned why the massage industry is singled out when doctors, dentists and beauticians are not required by the city to undergo annual physical exams.

Mayor Richard Lehman said those who work in such professions are licensed by the state of Minnesota, which does not now license massage therapists.

City Attorney Al Felix and City Clerk Kay Murphy, who both worked on the last massage ordinance, said momentum is gaining for the establishment of a statewide licensure system, but it has not yet been approved.

Felix noted that the original city massage ordinance adopted in the 1980s was in response to the fear that massage businesses were connected to adult entertainment or that business could be promoting illegal activities such as prostitution.

Erickson said that proves why the ordinance as written is "archaic."

"This is a legitimate business," she said.

Murphy, who is responsible for asking those who request a massage therapy license to obtain a physical exam, said she believed the requirement is "old-fashioned."

She explained that the ordinance already requires that massage therapists go through schooling to become certified and then also pass a national examination and obtain national certification.