Ten days before a new law would place tighter restrictions on massage parlors opening in Westerville, the City Council on Feb. 6 voted to temporarily ban any new massage businesses from opening for 90 days.
Council members voted 7-0 to approve the moratorium, effective immediately. The move follows a Feb. 2 raid of a spa suspected of illegal activity. (RELATED VIDEO)
Outrage from residents concerned about such businesses serving as fronts for prostitution and human trafficking has been bubbling for weeks. In January, another spa business posted online about opening in Westerville using sexually suggestive photos and phrases on websites typically used to advertise unlawful activity, Westerville police said.
The moratorium will give council members more time to craft permanent legislation to address the issue. Their goal is to become a "model city" in fighting human trafficking and aiding victims, council chairman Michael Heyeck said.
"I live down the street from where this business was slated to open and I seriously debated whether I wanted to step up and say anything," said Renee Jackson, one of more than 100 people at a public meeting Tuesday night to discuss the topic.
"I just couldn't turn a blind eye. I'm so impressed you've stepped up."
Police say the same manager operates the two businesses in question: Crystal Asian Massage, 407 W. Main St., closed after the Feb. 2 raid due to property-maintenance violations. Orchid Asian Spa, planned for 535 S. Otterbein Ave., hadn't yet opened and was issued an eviction notice Feb. 5 by its property owner, Westerville City Manager David Collinsworth said.
A call to Crystal Asian Massage's business phone number wasn't returned. Orchid Asian Spa's number didn't offer an option to leave a voicemail message, and the call wasn't answered.
A new city law requiring all massage businesses to be licensed by the state goes into effect Feb. 16.
In Ohio, a masseuse must have a license to provide medicinal massages but may give "relaxation massages" without one.
It's not known if Crystal Asian Massage had licenses.
The investigation into Crystal Asian Massage began in May 2017 and is ongoing, Westerville police said. No charges have been filed. Two female employees were detained and interviewed by the Salvation Army Recovery Team, which assists suspected victims of human trafficking, and Asian American Community Services representatives.
There were complaints of people sleeping at Crystal Asian in 2017, but no violation was observed, according to a list city officials compiled of Westerville's 22 massage businesses, their license status and complaints. All but five of the 22 businesses had licenses.
Other cities throughout the state have adopted similar ordinances to Westerville to shut down parlors that say they offer relaxation massages to conceal sex acts from women who often are victims of human trafficking.
Brunswick, near Cleveland, adopted such a law last year. Springboro and Mason in southwestern Ohio did the same in 2016.
A Blendon Township resident who owns a medical-massage-therapy business in Westerville noted one downside: Those who truly want to offer relaxation massages without a license could be negatively impacted because of others' crimes.
"This could turn legitimate businesses into collateral damage," April Zobel said.
Future legislation could address this issue, council members said.
Westerville police Chief Joe Morbitzer and Marlene Carson, a public speaker and survivor of human trafficking from central Ohio, spoke with residents Tuesday night about their concerns. The city also provided educational handouts for guests regarding human trafficking.
Two community forums on the topic with Carson are being planned for March.