Massage therapy services ready to get back in touch with customers

REHOBOTH BEACH — Those who look to massage therapists to relieve pain and stress will not go without care much longer.

Earlier this week, Gov. John Carney announced that all personal service businesses, including massage establishments, nail salons, tattoo parlors and other spas, can open under restrictions Monday.

All massage therapy establishments across Delaware were forced to close for more than two months under the COVID-19 nonessential-business closures ordered by Gov. Carney on March 23. This left dozens of business owners and massage therapists displaced with no source of income.

When the governor’s Phase 1 of reopening the economy began June 1, massage establishments were not included in businesses permitted to open, and many massage therapists did not expect to be opening until as late as July.

Greer Thompson is a licensed massage therapist and the owner of HeartWish Healing Center in Rehoboth Beach, which offers a variety of professional massage, chakra-balancing and yoga services to its clients. Ms. Thompson said the news on Tuesday came as a relief, albeit a bit unexpected.

“I think the news is fantastic,” Ms. Thompson said. “I wish we had a two-week window to prepare. But, you know, everyone is excited and ready to get back to work.”

Under the condition of opening, massage establishments must follow certain health and safety protocols to prevent further spread of COVID-19. Some of these conditions include mask requirements, only allowing 30% fire code occupancy of the building, taking clients only by appointment and closing customer waiting rooms, among other restrictions.

Sarah Craig, president of the Delaware chapter of the American Massage Therapist Association, said her board was in contact with state officials from the Division of Small Businesses before opening to recommend what guidelines could be feasible for massage establishments across the state.

“What we were told by the Division of Small Businesses representative was that the governor’s office wants to see ideas from the industry, like what are we able to do, and what are we willing to do so that we can reopen,” Ms. Craig said. “This was helpful for us, so we made up a list.”

Ms. Craig said she and the Delaware AMTA board looked to restrictions used at barbershops and hair salons before deciding what guidelines could be most effective.

These state-advised restrictions are rather lenient when compared to procedures suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Ms. Thompson.

“Nothing is extreme. (State officials) could have taken a lot from 45-page federal guidelines, and it really could’ve made things different, like having to need HVAC modifications, and lots of other things that were in this booklet,” Ms. Thompson said. “So, this (state-mandated plan) is all realistic.”

The past two months have not been easy for massage therapists across the state — many practicing massage therapists and massage establishment owners have gone the entire time with no income, forced to apply for unemployment assistance or small business loans.

Ms. Thompson said she lost as much as $30,000 in revenue while closed, emphasizing the importance of summer tourism for massage establishments in coastal Delaware.

“I’ve lost well over $30,000 in revenue since (mid-March),” Ms. Thompson said. “I’m also in Rehoboth Beach, so this is normally a time of year where our revenue increases.”

Ms. Craig, who is also a licensed massage therapist and owner of Smyrna Massage and Wellness, qualified for a Paycheck Protection Program loan while closed, which she said only covered about a month and a half of expenses. She expressed that some massage therapists in the state have experienced more issues than she did in regard to the government aid.

“I know a lot of independent practitioners who maybe didn’t qualify for the PPP and have been really frustrated by the unemployment assistance programs and the lack of direction and funding coming from there,” Ms. Craig said.

Nickole Renea Visan, a licensed massage therapist and owner of Visan Massage and Bodywork in Rehoboth Beach, said she has waited weeks for her unemployment to come through.

“Well, it’s really like we have nowhere to turn,” Ms. Visan said. “When unemployment didn’t come through for week after week, and now, we’re on week No. 11, it’s really hard.”

Self-employed individuals such as Ms. Visan have waited weeks to receive aid from the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, many still not receiving any financial compensation. A technical error that occurred on Tuesday further set back when payments would be received for thousands of self-employed Delawareans.

Ms. Visan said she feels grateful that she can still afford the reduced rent of her massage studio while waiting weeks on end for unemployment aid to come through.

“The whole process, it leaves you flustered a number of days per week trying to figure out how you were going to make ends meet, without any loans and without any unemployment, because if you work, say even if it’s part time, you have to report those earnings,” Ms. Visan said. “So, it’s like you can’t work, because if you do work, then your unemployment will get denied.”

In the original Phase 1 documents released by Gov. Carney, massage establishments were frequently referred to as massage parlors, an antiquated term frequently associated with backdoor prostitution and human-trafficking schemes.

Ms. Craig said she and the national AMTA board wrote a letter to Gov. Carney after noticing the use of the term “massage parlor” to explain to him why this terminology can be considered insulting.

“Massage parlor tends to be a term that is used for illegitimate establishments. So, at the very least, it can be untrained people doing massage, and at the worst is going to be prostitution-related services,” Ms. Craig said. “So, that’s why we’ve tried for a long time to separate the two and integrate how the term ‘massage therapy’ has ‘therapy’ in it, like we’re actually doing therapy like a physical therapist or an occupational therapist.”

Ms. Craig said she never received a response from Gov. Carney but noticed that the state altered its use of the term “massage parlor” to “massage therapy services” in their reopening guidelines after she sent the letter.

Some patrons of massage therapy enjoy it for stress-release purposes, while others with medical conditions see massage therapists for pain relief. Persons who need massage therapy to cope with pain have gone two months without proper treatment due to state restrictions.

George Tudor, a licensed massage therapist at Rehoboth Massage and Alignment, said his practice helps people learn pain management and how to correct posture, among other health benefits. Mr. Tudor says that clients who receive massages regularly can experience more pain when forced to go without them for months.

“The most heartbreaking thing is having my regulars call me and tell me they’re back to experiencing pain,” Mr. Tudor said. “There is a lot of people that this work is essential for them.”

As more establishments continue to open, not just in Delaware but across the country, people worry about the possibility of a COVID-19 resurgence. Ms. Thompson said she hopes that people will take the ongoing pandemic seriously even as more places open.

“I hope people are respectful and mindful of their health, and whether or not they could expose someone else to something,” Ms. Thompson said. “And that goes not just for COVID-19, that’s the flu, that’s a cold, that’s for everything.”

The state is slated to move into Phase 2 of reopening the economy June 15, according to materials released by Gov. Carney. Massage establishments will still be required to follow the 30% capacity rule during Phase 2, while other retail and food establishments will move up to 60% capacity.

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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