It’s been almost four decades but San Franciscans will soon be able to get down and dirty in their neighbourhood gay bathhouse, just like the good old days. Gay bathhouses can now open in the city under looser restrictions for the first time in almost 40 years.

The laws that resulted in the closure of bathhouses were left over from the early days of the AIDS crisis. These rules were enacted out of fear that such establishments were contributing to the spread of HIV/AIDS and included the prohibition on private locked rooms and mandated surveillance of patrons, all of which combined essentially  amounted to an outright ban on such premises.

The archaic and easily avoidable laws, (it’s just a quick cheeky trip across to San Jose or Berkeley, less than an hours drive for those unfamiliar with the area, if you have a hankering to hunker down with an anonymous special someone), have been rescinded thanks to the efforts of gay local government representative, Rafael Mandelman.

Symbolic Significance For Now

“It is symbolically significant right now. Whether it is significant on the ground depends on if entrepreneurs with the vision and financial capacities and the savvy to open and operate one of these,” said Mandelman about the impact of the new rules.

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 “It seems like a reasonable set of rules for the running of a bathhouse, which is what we wanted,” said Mandelman, though no-one has yet put their hand up to attempt to open a premises. “If somebody comes forward, we will have to see what is the interrelationship between public health and land use. As we all know, it is hard to get anything approved in San Francisco.”

No Mention Of PrEP

The new guidelines, as reported by the Bay Area Reporter, require any prospective gay bathhouse operator to operate following a set of rules including listing and discouraging sexual activities that carry a high risk of HIV and other STIs, such as condom-less anal and vaginal sex and fisting without the use of gloves. The rules also state that these precautions must be listed in multiple languages, including English, Chinese, Spanish and Tagalog. There is no mention of PrEP.

Other rules and regulations include patrons signing an agreement on entering the gay bathhouse acknowledging the restricted sexual activities, along with a prohibition on onsite sex work and the consumption of alcohol. Entry to those under the influence of any substances will also be denied.

The venues must provide free condoms and lube along with hot and cold water, soap and towels. There’s no information available on what happens if the rules are discovered to be broken.

Australian Gay Saunas

Australia’s version of the bathhouse, the sauna, has faced decline in recent times thanks to the onslaught of COVID restrictions. In particular, one of Sydney’s longest running saunas closed its doors at the beginning of 2021, though the remaining venues seem to be coping with the new operating environment, with COVID-safe procedures listed prominently on websites.

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