Gay sauna ban lifted in San Francisco as London sauna closes

There’s some good news and bad for guys who enjoy saunas this week. 

The good news comes out of San Francisco, where a long-standing ban on gay saunas and bathhouses in the city was lifted by the health department. The ban, which was put in place in the 1980s to restrict gay sex as a response to the AIDS crisis, mandated that patrons be surveilenced and be prohibited from entering locked private rooms. 

Presently, the only operating bathhouse in the Bay Area — Steamworks in Berkley, California, did not have to comply with San Francisco laws. The only gay sex club in San Francisco — Eros, located in the Castro district — obeyed the aforementioned guidelines in order to stay open. The lifting of the ban now allows owners and operators to submit permits requesting the establishment of traditional bathhouses, including locked private rooms.

“It is symbolically significant right now,” said 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.” 

According to the Reporter, a corresponding city document, “Minimum Standards for Operation of Sex Clubs, Commercial Sex Venues and Parties,” has yet to be released to the public. However, the new guidelines require bathhouse operators to continue to discourage sexual activities that pose a high risk for HIV and other STIs, such as unprotected anal and vaginal sex and fisting without gloves. The discouraged sexual activities must be listed and provisions must be displayed in multiple languages, including English, Chinese, Spanish, and Tagalog.

Additionally, patrons must not enter inebriated and must sign an agreement acknowledging the restricted sexual activities. The venue is also required to give out condoms and lube, and must prohibit sex work and alcohol consumption on the premises. 

While San Francisco is still in lockdown, the news comes at a time when many LGBTQ+ venues around the world are being forced to close due to the economic hardships primarily caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. One such place is Chariots sauna in London. 

Which brings us to the bad news — Chariots Health Clubs, located in Vauxhall, is closing permanently. The sauna initially closed its doors in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, with plans on reopening once they were able to. But on Monday, the venue announced online that it will be closing for good. 

“Chariots sauna will not reopen and is currently in the process of liquidation,” they wrote. 

“I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to all our customers and to the gay community as a whole for supporting us and making the company a success for many years. We wish you all well for the future.”

Many former customers and members of the LGBTQ+ community took to Twitter to express their goodbyes and share memories of their experiences.

One former Chariots Spa staff member wrote on Twitter: “One of the most iconic gay saunas in London I had the pleasure of working with since September 2019 has unfortunately had to liquidate due to finance issues.”

The staff member went on to say: “Saunas such as Chariots had provided a safe space for gay men pre-COVID for countless years. Whatever your feelings are towards saunas, I think we can all safely say that it’s gonna be a huge loss for the London community.” 

Chariots Health Clubs opened its first sauna in the Shoreditch area in 1996. The company went on to open branches in various other London neighborhoods, including Streatham, Farringdon, Limehouse, Waterloo and finally Vauxhall in 2005. The Vauxhall location was the last one standing, and branded itself “Europe’s Largest Gay Sauna”. 

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