BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | Five city sex clubs or porn shops that were inspected this year by the health department have been warned that “prohibited sex acts” were seen on their premises and that they might be closed unless there is an “immediate cessation of the prohibited sexual activities,” according to documents obtained under the state open records law.
Between March 29 and June 6, the health department sent warning letters to J’s Hangout, at 675 Hudson, the Manhole and the Hellfire Club, both at 28 Ninth Avenue, the Jewel Theater, at 100 Third Avenue, and Ann Street Entertainment, at 21 Ann Street. The clubs and shops were told that inspectors had observed violations of a state health code that bans oral, anal, and vaginal sex in businesses.
The code was created in 1985 and amended in 1992. Its ostensible intent is to prevent unsafe sex in businesses and to give government the means to close places where unsafe sex is occurring. Activists have long objected to the state health code because it does not differentiate between safe and unsafe sex.
Herald Price Fahringer, the attorney for Ann Street, declined to comment as did a Hellfire Club spokesperson. The answering machine at the Manhole was not accepting messages and Gay City News could not reach management at J’s Hangout or the Jewel Theater.
Whether these inspections presage what will be a regular effort is unclear. In a March interview, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said that his department routinely inspected clubs.
“If they violate the health code we should take appropriate action,” he said. “There are regular inspections going on and there have been for many years. I’m not familiar with the details of it, but there is a unit that does inspections.”
Ronald Johnson, associate executive director at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, or GMHC, said use of the code was spotty.
“My sense is that it is being applied erratically,” he said. “I don’t get a sense of a coherent, consistent approach.”
That is unfair to the sex clubs and porn shops, but it also means that what activists view as a lousy law is not regularly enforced, according to Johnson.
“Since I don’t think [the health department’s] approach is the appropriate way to handle this problem my sense is that that is not bad thing,” he said.
Documents obtained under the open records law and prior interviews with health department officials suggest that the city’s enforcement of the state health code has ranged from very aggressive to non-existent.
In 2001, the city warned the Christopher Street Book Shop, at 500 Hudson, and closed the Gay Cable Network, at 133 W. 25th Street, and the Bear Cave/Vault at 146 W. 28th Street.
While the Gay Cable Network had produced a weekly cable news for 19 years the premises also doubled as a sex club. The Bear Cave/Vault apparently opened after a renter at the 28th Street location sublet his apartment and the sub-tenant converted it into a sex club.
The department produced no records that identified any enforcement effort in 2000 nor is Gay City News otherwise aware of any such effort.
In 1998 and 1999, the Giuliani administration organized a task force of inspectors from the police, fire, health, and buildings departments, under the auspices of the Mayor’s Office of Midtown Enforcement, that made multiple inspections of the city’s bathhouses. One bathhouse, the Circle Club, at 17 West 60th Street, was closed in 1999. There are currently six bathhouses operating in the city.
The city warned one business in 1997 and temporarily closed another. In 1996, the health department sent warning letters to 11 businesses. The city closed eleven clubs in 1996.
The banner year for code enforcement was 1995. By the close of that year the health department had made between 1,300 and 1,400 separate inspections of between 40 and 50 different commercial sex establishments. Some 30 establishments received warning letters from the health department. The city closed nine businesses in 1995.