Are Massage Therapists Considered Essential Workers?

ImageIn mid-July, Gov. Gavin Newsom gave guidelines for barber shops, nail salons and massage businesses that allowed them to stay in practice, if they moved outdoors.
Credit…Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Good morning. You cannot give a massage over Zoom. And that means California’s decisions to declare many massage therapists as nonessential workers has made their lives especially challenging in the pandemic.

As part of our effort to answer reader questions — we call it Your Lead — we heard from Marion Pernoux, a massage therapist and reiki practitioner, who asked, “How do California officials define essential health providers and why is my professional specialty not included in this category?”

Ms. Pernoux lives in San Francisco, which is one of six counties in California that have not reopened massage establishments. Because of the spike in coronavirus cases, officials in San Francisco pushed back their original target date for reopening personal care businesses and have not specified a new date.

According to the California Massage Therapy Council, which is tracking openings around the state, other counties including Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Luis Obispo and San Diego are allowing outdoor massages only. Humboldt, Mariposa and Inyo counties are allowing massages as normal.

[Track coronavirus cases by California county.]

The reopening list, which is constantly in flux, is based on the state’s monitoring rules. For counties that have been on the monitoring list for three consecutive days, some personal care services may be provided outdoors, but all indoor operations must remain closed.

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Updated 2020-07-31T12:56:16.304Z

Ms. Pernoux’s practice, which she has had for 15 years, has gone virtual. At the start of the pandemic, she began providing reiki, a form of energy healing that involves touch, over Zoom. Her “distant reiki” sessions use a combination of breathwork and guided meditation. She began by treating a group of nurses at a local hospital and the online sessions eventually reached people outside California, in states like Wisconsin.

The state has a broad definition of essential workers based on their particular industry. Essential health care workers include doctors and nurses as well as food service and waste management workers. Massage therapists who practice outside of clinical health care settings are not classified as essential.

Still, Ms. Pernoux says that she wants people to know that massage therapists and healers can play an important role.

“It’s not just relieving muscle tension,” she said. “It’s the clinical aspect of tending to somebody who’s allowed to just completely let go.”

In mid-July, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced guidelines for barber shops, nail salons and massage establishments that allowed them to stay in practice, if they moved outdoors.

“We talk often, not just about masks, but the importance of moving indoor activities outdoors,” Mr. Newsom said.

While some businesses were forced to close, others adapted to the order.

Sparrow Harrington is the owner of Sparrow’s Nest Wellness Center in Los Angeles, which provides prenatal and postpartum therapeutic massage care. Ms. Harrington shut down her business for three months to comply with stay-at-home orders. She reopened in late June and for two weeks provided services in the office. Then came the order to move outside.

“We had one day’s notice,” Ms. Harrington said. “We had clients on the books for the next day and it had to be outdoors.”

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Ms. Harrington and her team quickly set up a massage table in a gazebo on her property. At the office, they set up an open-air tent on the patio to shield clients and therapists from the sun while allowing fresh breezes to flow through. Massage therapists changed their uniforms to shorts and jumpers, and a cooling fan was added to the space.

Performing massages outdoors has been surprisingly smooth, Ms. Harrington said, even with the rising temperatures in Southern California.

“We’re just really grateful that we had the opportunity to be able to not just have a hard stop but to be able to adapt in a way that can make this more safe and sustainable for our clients,” she said.

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Credit…U.S. Geological Survey
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Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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