Facing possible 'shutdown,' NC massage therapists push back against new state rules

CARY, NC (WTVD) -- Hands on Health in Cary is one of the hundreds of independent massage therapy businesses around the state. They boast a clientele as young as 10 months old and as old as 80.

But as the state tries to crack down on a growing problem, these massage therapy pros are concerned they'll be caught in the crossfire.

"We're a small business," said Laura Ford, one of the 15 licensed massage therapists here specializing in medical massage, orthopedic, or injury-repair touch therapy.

"It needs to be a place where a person can feel comfortable letting go and feel safe," Ford explained from one of the company's six treatment rooms.

It's a serious business of stress and pain relief - but don't call it a massage parlor.

"Parlor is not a word to use with a massage-therapy practice," Ford said. "You will not find a legitimate massage therapy practice that uses that word."

It's those unscrupulous parlors - many of them operating in the shadows of rural North Carolina - that the state is cracking down on.

In 2017, there were 258 cases of human trafficking; it's a form of slavery where victims are forced to work or perform sex acts - some of it done under the guise of a massage business.

Last summer, state lawmakers passed a new law imposing tougher penalties for human traffickers as well as new regulations for massage therapy businesses to keep them from being used by human traffickers.

Regulators want to mandate the size of treatment rooms to 10 feet by 12 feet. It's one of the many new rules drawing the ire of legitimate therapists like Ford

"I cannot do massage and bodywork therapy in this room," Ford says in one of her 9 feet by 11 feet treatment rooms.

And renovating the room to meet those new requirements would not be a cheap fix.

About "$100,000," Ford estimated. "And weeks of shutdown."

The N.C. Board of Massage and Bodywork is the panel of state regulators finalizing the new rules and regulations. Charles Wilkins is the board's legal counsel. He told ABC11 the rules are not yet written in stone.

The board is taking public comment on the proposals until mid-May.

"And we hope if there are any unintended consequences from these rules that we will be notified of them," Wilkens said. "(The board) will consider all those comments and then have the opportunity to amend those rules and change them to make them more user-friendly."

Laura Ford said she and her network of therapists plan to test that pledge by speaking out loudly.

"The public needs to know what's going to happen to this industry if (the rules go in effect as is)," she said. "People are shutting down. They'll have to shut down. They will have to."
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