Dear Premier Ford, Deputy Premier and Minister Elliott,
I’m writing to you on behalf of the bathhouse operators, staff and clientele in my ward and across Toronto who fear that these longstanding and unique establishments are at risk of closing forever.
Gay male bathing spaces have been in existence for centuries, and through all this time, they have survived discriminatory laws, targeted police raids and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. It will be tragic history-making for Ontario bathhouses if they can withstand all the previous challenges but ultimately shutter their doors forever not due to COVID-19 but because of government inaction, systemic homophobia and differential treatment.
Across Canada, bathhouses have been allowed to reopen in four provinces but not here in Ontario. It is my understanding that not a single known case of COVID-19 transmission to date has been connected to bathhouses. The bathhouses in BC, Manitoba, Quebec and Nova Scotia have been reopened for business provided that they comply with public health measures that reduce risks facing their staff and customers.
I have been informed that the Ministry of Health has received detailed safety plans from bathhouse operators from my ward and across Ontario. In their safety plans, they have outlined every single step they will take to safely re-open their establishments. Bathhouse operators will strictly follow public health protocols such as record keeping of clients for contact tracing, ensure staff and clients wear personal protective equipment, increase frequency of enhanced cleaning of all equipment and facilities and reduce occupancy by a minimum of 50 percent.
I understand that their safe reopening plans and applications were to be responded to by the Ministry within 10 days but at the time of my writing this letter, not a single bathhouse operator has heard back from the Province. There has been no Ministry feedback on their safe reopening plan nor any indication of when bathhouse operators can expect to hear back formally from the Province.
It is mystifying that the Province has allowed a number of adult entertainment businesses to reopen including swinger clubs, adult video stores, strip bars and erotic massage parlours. Swinger clubs, by any other name, are essentially bathhouses for straight people - yet Ontario bathhouses predominantly serving gay men have not been allowed to open.
I am curious to know whether or not there is bias in how the Ministry is determining what businesses are given permission to re-open and “who” is important, given the different treatment toward the gay and straight clientele. Public health decisions affecting bathhouse operations and the LGBTQ2S+ communities should be fairly considered, especially since their straight counterparts, the swinger clubs, have already been allowed to open since Ontario entered Stage 3 in late July. Such questionable discretion deserves an open and transparent rationale.
If Ontario bathhouses are not allowed to reopen soon, these businesses will not survive. Even pre-COVID LGBTQ2S+ affirming spaces were under threat due to rising commercial rents. Since the pandemic, things have become even more difficult for many business owners especially since commercial rent support programs and eviction bans are set to immediately expire.
Dr. Eileen de Villa, the City of Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health has stressed that Toronto Public Health must take a broad view on health and this is why she speaks about "living as safely as possible" with COVID-19 in our midst. She has stated there is no "zero-risk" scenario – but there are actions that we can take as a community to reduce our shared risk. It is with Dr. de Villa’s advice in mind, that as Vice-Chair of Toronto Public Health I insist that all cultural, social and health benefits of bathhouses be properly weighted when the Ministry of Health is reviewing the bathhouses’ safe reopening plans.
The loss of bathhouses will be devastating to the gay men's community. It's about more than sex. For older gay men not using the dating apps - it about friendships, companionships and connection. https://www.thestar.com/business/2014/12/21/a_new_reality_for_torontos_bathhouses.html
COVID has already sent many in the LGBTQ2S+ community into isolation, back into closets and homophobic family homes. Losing the safe spaces and sanctuary that can be found in bathhouses will make things worse for many in the community. Safer sex practices actively promoted by sexual health and AIDS service organizations in the bathhouses will not be available if such activities are driven underground in private and unlicensed spaces.
It is important that we work together to find ways to preserve LGBTQ2S+ positive spaces that both mitigate the risk of COVID-19 and facilitate the ability for human connection and companionship, which are so important in these very challenging times.
Thank you for taking the time to consider my request and if you have any additional questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me directly.
Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam
Ward 13, Toronto Centre
Vice-Chair, Toronto Board of Health