The Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention, the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention, Asian Community AIDS Services and AIDS ACTION NOW! are among a newly formed coalition calling on Toronto’s Board of Health to develop guidelines to reopen bathhouses.
A petition signed by the groups is scheduled to be up for discussion at the board’s meeting on Monday (March 22).
“The baths have been community hubs for gay men for generations. We fought to keep them open when police tried to close them down in the 80s. We fought to ensure they were centres for safe sex education during the AIDS epidemic. We need to make sure they continue to be safe places for us to gather in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Tim McCaskell, a member of the new Coalition for COVID-Safe Club Re-opening (CoCSCR).
But bathhouses are a dying breed in Toronto. Only a handful remain. Economic pressures have caused a “sharp decline” in their numbers, says an open letter from the CoCSCR to the board. The pandemic has added to the pressure on the remaining businesses that Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam says are at “risk of closing forever.”
Wong-Tam is supporting a motion to the board of health, calling on Toronto’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Eileen de Villa to draft safety plans for the reopening of bathhouses.
Board chair Joe Cressy, however, says a motion may not be necessary at this point.
Cressy says “There is good collaborative work underway right now. We have had productive conversations including with bathhouse operators, employees and Toronto Public Health staff about the importance of reopening bathhouses safely as soon as the pandemic permits it, with appropriate public health guidelines in place.”
Wong-Tam says that bathhouse operators in her ward wrote to the Ontario government to propose detailed reopening plans last summer, but they have yet to hear back.
“There has been no Ministry feedback nor any indication of when bathhouse operators can expect to hear back formally from the province,” says Wong-Tam in a letter to Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott.
McCaskell says no one thought about bathhouses when it came time for the province to draft reopening guidelines last fall. Bathhouses fall somewhere between restaurants and gyms in the current guidelines, only they are neither. “It’s a tricky situation,” says McCaskell.
The pandemic has closed bathhouses, but gay men have continued to meet for sex, increasing the risks of COVID-19 to themselves and the community “without access to the safety, discretion and outreach services provided at the baths,” states CoCSCR’s open letter to the board.
“It would be unfortunate if this situation persists for another year,” the letter continues, pointing out that bathhouse workers include a high proportion of racialized and low-income men.
The lack of reopening plans for bathhouses has left owners to “improvise plans” for reopening, the coalition says, and not always with the desired results. This past fall, for example, baths in London and Hamilton were reopened while local outbreaks and case numbers were rising, only to be forced to close shortly afterward as the public health situation worsened.
Besides regular protocols required for other businesses – like contact tracing and the wearing of personal protective equipment – CoCSCR is proposing as a start that bathhouses only be allowed to reopen once vaccines become available to the general population (outside high-risk groups) and COVID-19 numbers are “either stable or declining in Toronto…, and low enough that TPH permits indoor gatherings with members of multiple households.”
CoCSCR proposes that the guidelines include requiring Toronto bathhouses to ensure ventilation systems “are sufficient to meaningfully reduce risk of aerosol transmission,” capping the number of customers that can be admitted per day and renting out rooms and lockers only once per day.
Bathhouses in BC, Manitoba, Quebec and Nova Scotia have been allowed to reopen, but COVID monitoring plans put in place there to ensure adherence to the rules have raised privacy issues.
The coalition is calling on the board to develop a “positive and shame-free” framework for safety plans “in line with a pragmatic harm-reduction approach that will limit potential exposure without requiring customers to remain socially distanced or to forgo having sex with multiple partners.”
Wong-Tam describes as “mystifying” the fact that the province has allowed adult entertainment venues like strip bars, massage parlours and swingers clubs to reopen but not bathhouses.
“Swingers clubs, by any other name, are essentially bathhouses for straight people.”
She says the loss of bathhouses will be “devastating,” particularly for older gay men. “It’s about more than sex. For older gay men not using the dating apps – it’s about friendships, companionships and connection.”