Columbia County residents have plenty of relaxing days ahead, as several new massage businesses have recently opened or are planning to open soon.
The Board of Commissioners has allowed at least five massage businesses to operate with approval of rezoning and conditional use requests in the past year. Jose Massage and Spa in Evans, formerly part of Jenn Salon, received approval for a conditional use request on Oct. 19.
Em.Body Massage received unanimous approval from the board on Nov. 16 for a conditional use request in order to operate from a location on Columbia Road in Martinez.
“Columbia County’s great to work with,” said Ema Kelly, licensed massage therapist and proprietor of Em.Body. “Just sign all your paperwork and remember all your dates on time.”
Those trying to open a massage business, or even move an already operating massage business to a new location, must go through a series of protocols to be permitted by the county, going through both permits and licensing as well as planning and zoning.
Kelly first acquired her license and opened Em.Body in 2014 at its original location on Cox Road in Evans. When Kelly decided to move Em.Body to the current Columbia Road address, she had to submit an application for a conditional use since the new location was not zoned for massage businesses.
“We have six different zoning classifications where therapeutic massage may be permitted by conditional use approval,” said County Manager Scott Johnson. “Basically, even if it’s a standalone building or suite within an existing doctor’s office, whatever the case may be, those all have to be approved for a conditional use process.”
This process includes a public hearing with the Planning Commission and then a final approval by the Board of Commissioners.
Columbia County adopted an ordinance June 6, 2017 that requires those applying to operate a massage business be licensed by the state as a massage therapist and reside within 50 miles of the location of the massage business.
“We want to ensure that it is someone local who will have oversight of that property in the operations there,” said Licensing and Permits Manager Erin Hall. “There has to be a United States citizen or a permanent resident of the U.S.”
Regarding oversight of licensed massage businesses, Hall says that they are not monitored “any differently than any other business in Columbia County.”
“Now, there maybe be state inspections because they are licensed by the state of Georgia,” said Hall.
The ordinance also allows the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, as well as “authorized agents or employees designated by Columbia County,” to make inspections during regular business hours of each massage business to ensure adherence to state law and regulations.
The language explaining the purpose of the ordinance reads, the “Board has determined it in the best interest of the health, welfare, safety and morals of the county to provide reasonable regulations pertinent to the operation of massage businesses.”
Columbia County enacted the 2017 ordinance following several public incidents of massage businesses being used as fronts for unlawful activity.
In November 2016, Sun Okay Kim and Mun Suk Choi were charged with trafficking of persons for sexual servitude, and Sun Ja Song was charged with prostitution, at what was King’s Health Spa at 337 S. Belair Road in Martinez.
In 2019, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law the Georgia Massage Therapy Practice Act, effectively and explicitly designating massage therapy as a healthcare service, with ramifications for how local governments regulate the
businesses of licensed massage practitioners.
“Our law changed in 2019 with new language that states massage therapy is healthcare,” said Craig Knowles, chairman of the Georgia Board of Massage Therapy. “As well as it makes it illegal for a city or county to treat massage therapy differently than they treat any other profession in healthcare. This would include business licensing fees, fees to do site surveys to keep a massage business from being within a certain distance from another business, from putting massage therapy under adult entertainment.”
Knowles notes that, even though the Massage Practice Therapy act is law, the Georgia Board of Massage Therapy itself isn’t authorized to regulate the massage business, but only massage programs.
“If a city or county refuses to follow the law, they are in violation of the governor’s orders,” said Knowles. “But because the massage board doesn’t regulate establishments, the board cannot reprimand a city or county for not following the law.”
Kelly recalls the process of getting licensed by the state and stressed her education and her qualifications as a healthcare provider, even though she was licensed years before the Georgia Massage Therapy Practice Act went into effect.
“I always emphasized the healthcare side of it, more so than the spa aspect,” said Kelly. “I always looked at what I’m doing is helping fix my customers up.”
Sandy Steed has been licensed as a massage therapist in Georgia since 2007. Though a resident of Columbia County, Steed operates her business, Massages by Sandy, in Richmond County due to the convenience of its location.
“The process was tedious to get my operating license in Richmond County,” said Steed. “I had a ton of paperwork and not one but two commissioners board things I had to go to be approved.”
Steed also notes that, alongside paying for the operator and business licenses, per Georgia law, she had to provide copies of her credentials, including her liability insurance, school certificate, her state license and her National Board Certification.
Steed suspects that the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting business closings contributed to more massage businesses being approved.
“I’m guessing the more massage businesses they approve, it will yield more revenue for the counties, in my opinion, to build back up what was lost previously,” said Steed. “Hopefully, they are not being reckless about their decisions to approve so quickly, as we all know there can be a few bad fruits in the group who aren’t legitimate massage businesses.”