New day

San Francisco opens the tap for a major bathhouse comeback

via Shutterstock

Amid the ongoing shutdowns and social distancing of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of San Francisco just opened door to bathhouses culture making a major comeback.

For those unfamiliar with queer history, bathhouses once served as a social center for LGBTQ men in particular. Hanging out in the jacuzzi with friends–and maybe having a bit of sex on the side–was as customary as meeting up at a gay bar or club. That changed with the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, when cities across the country began shuttering bathhouse venues as a means of curbing the epidemic.

Related: You can tell a gay man with a love of bathhouses wrote this movie. We’re ok with that.

Now, almost 40 years after the city imposed a litany of restrictions designed to shut down bathhouses, San Francisco has reverted to pre-AIDS regulations. In essence, the city is inviting new bathhouses to open.

“It is symbolically significant right now,” gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman told The Bay Area Reporter. “Whether it is significant on the ground depends on if entrepreneurs with the vision and financial capacities and the savvy to open can and operate one of these.”

The new regulations require that bathhouse venues must post warnings about the spread of STIs including HIV, as well as high-risk activities. In addition, venues must provide lube, condoms, soap and towels. Patrons under 18 years of age or who seem intoxicated are also not allowed.

It remains to be seen if a series of new bathhouse venues will open up in the city; COVID-19 restrictions currently prevent their opening in the short term. At the height of their popularity in the 1970s, San Francisco offered as many as 30 different bathhouse and spa destinations around the city. Today, only one venue remains. It also remains an unanswered question as to whether younger generations used to using dating apps to socialize and meet sexual partners will gravitate to a live venue.