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Sex club, bathhouses close due to virus concerns

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A sign on the door of Eros in San Francisco announced the sex club is closed due to coronavirus concerns. Photo: John Ferrannini
A sign on the door of Eros in San Francisco announced the sex club is closed due to coronavirus concerns. Photo: John Ferrannini  

They closed permanently in San Francisco during the height of the AIDS epidemic and now, the coronavirus has temporarily shuttered gay bathhouses in Berkeley and San Jose.

At least one sex club in San Francisco has also closed.

The Watergarden in San Jose closed at midnight March 13 in compliance with a Santa Clara County health order issued that day, that banned non-essential gatherings of 35 or more people, according to general manager John Gamber.

Steamworks Baths in Berkeley, which is in Alameda County, has also closed. All non-essential gatherings in Alameda County have been banned since midnight March 17, as they are in much of the greater Bay Area.

"Due to state and local health advisories for social distancing to limit the spread of COVID-19, we have decided to close the club until further notice. To our knowledge, at this time, none of our members or staff have tested positive for this virus," a statement on Steamworks' website reads. "Our regular customers know we're one of the cleanest clubs in the business but during this closure we will be keeping ourselves busy undertaking a complete disinfection and re-paint of all ceilings, walls, floors, and furniture.

"We hope to have you back once the worst of this outbreak is over. Please follow us on social media or check our website for updates on this developing situation," it continued.

Steamworks declined to comment beyond its statement. The Bay Area Reporter spoke with Gamber by phone March 19.

"The Watergarden has been in the same location in business for over 40 years," Gamber said. "Ultimately, however, all small businesses are vulnerable."

Gamber said that gay bathhouses and bars face a particular risk from the coronavirus.

"It's not just a question of being open, but with this virus it's also about distance and proximity," he said. "Small businesses are dependent upon volume."

SF sex club closes doors
Eros, a sex club at 2051 Market Street in San Francisco, is not technically a bathhouse, as bathhouses have been banned in San Francisco since a 1984 government order at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Sex clubs without private rooms are allowed to operate in city limits.

Eros has been closed since Monday, March 16, at 9 p.m., according to co-owner Ken Rowe, due to San Francisco's shelter in place order that went into effect about three hours later.

Before that, Eros had been limiting the number of people who could enter, Rowe said, but "our numbers hadn't been high for a week or two."

"We're taking it week by week," Rowe said.

When asked if it was a possibility that Eros might close permanently (many small businesses are threatened with financial ruin), Rowe said that he didn't see that as a possibility yet.

Gamber also expressed confidence that The Watergarden will be able to reopen.

South of Market sex club Blow Buddies, located at 933 Harrison Street, did not respond to a request for comment at press time. A Google search indicated it is also closed.

As the Bay Area Reporter recently reported (https://www.ebar.com/news/latest_news/289258), the first hearing on whether to allow bathhouses to open in San Francisco for the first time in 36 years was initially going to be held Thursday, March 12, but gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman made the decision to postpone it because it may have brought a large contingent of the public to speak on the matter at City Hall at a time officials were urging social distancing.

As the B.A.R. first reported in February, Mandelman's ordinance would jettison the long-standing prohibition against having locked doors for private rooms rented by bathhouse patrons and rescind the requirement that such venues hire people to monitor the sexual activities of their customers. Patrons in San Francisco sex clubs have to wear condoms in order to prevent the transmission of HIV.

To avoid COVID-19 (the illness caused by the coronavirus), the San Francisco Department of Public Health is advising people to wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, avoid touching their faces, cover their coughs and sneezes, try alternatives to the handshake, and stay home as much as possible.

People over 60, those with chronic medical conditions, and those with weakened immune systems are at particular risk if they contract the coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of COVID-19 include a fever, cough, and shortness of breath. More serious cases result in pneumonia.

Updated, 3/20/20: This article was updated to include that Steamworks declined to comment beyond its statement on its website.

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