Thousands of employees in Nevada lost their jobs when businesses shut down mid-March. While most other industries have been able to resume some level of operations, Gov. Steve Sisolak has indicated that the state’s brothels are “not on his radar” to reopen.
Services allowing physical contact around the state have been allowed to resume service, with tattoo shops, estheticians, and massage parlor open since May. However those in Nevada’s legal sex industry say they feel they’re being ignored.
Nevada is the only state to allow legal prostitution, but state laws requires such activities to take place in a licensed establishment in a county with a population of less than 700,000. Clark County is the only Nevada county to exceed that population count, while six other counties, Carson City, Douglas, Eureka, Lincoln, Pershing, and Washoe, have outlawed legalized prostitution. Among the 10 counties where brothels can legally operate, none operate in Churchill, Esmeralda or Humboldt.
The Mustang Ranch Brothel was closed in 1999, but owner Lance Gilman reopened it in 2005 and currently employ 49 people. Those full-time employees include security, kitchen staff and chefs, bartenders, housekeeping staff, cashiers and “parlor hostesses” who manage in-house operations.
However, in addition to the 49 staff members, there are several hundred legal sex workers who work at the brothel on a rotating basis. Legal sex workers are independent contractors and not employees, and this status has made it more difficult for those workers to receive supplemental benefits while out of work.
Unemployment benefits have not been immediately available to independent contractors during the first months lock-down, and although the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) was eventually extended to workers with this classification in May, but not all legal sex-workers have been eligible this assistance though. Furthermore, the brothels, themselves were not eligible for the Small Business Administration loans that many businesses took advantage of earlier this year.
Gilman, however did manage to secure Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans for the Wild Horse Saloon, the restaurant attached to Mustang Ranch. Additionally, Gilman’s business was eligible for federal small business grants distributed by Storey County.
Storey County, where Gilman is also a county commissioner, is the only county that participated in the grant program.
Yet even after receiving the PPP loans Mustang Ranch employees had to be furloughed and contractors were denied the supplemental income from these loans. And without unemployment benefits, many women in the industry are turning to creative options to make up for lost income, including phone sex lines and cam work.
Sisolak has said that he doesn’t know how people would social distance in a brothel, stating instead that it is up to brothel owners “coming up with a plan,” however every submitted plan has been met with silence from the state.
Gilman first submitted reopening plans in May to the COVID-19 Task Force and the Local Empowerment Advisory Panel which is supposed to help develop reopening guidelines for Nevada businesses. He also submitted a letter, with the plan attached, to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. However, Michael Brown, the office’s executive director, responded only by saying the reopening request, might “be considered at a future phase in the State’s re-opening plan.”
Gilman’s reopening plans includes procedures for screening employees, customers and contractors, limiting the number of customers and contractors in the building, sanitizing procedures and mask use requirements, and procedures for containment in the case of a positive test or failed screening. His proposal would also allow the brothel to operate without physical contact, essentially allowing the non-sexual escort services currently allowed by the county to take place within the brothel facility.
And while the bar would also remain closed to customers, the kitchen would be able to prepare food for guests, which would then be packaged and delivered to rented rooms. The letter also indicated that the brothel had been implementing safety protocols prior to its official shutdown.
“We took temperatures at the door with trained personnel, we took temperatures of every employee and every working lady prior to starting their workday every day,” Gilman said in the letter. “We use gloves, alcohol wipes and all forms of sanitary protocols. These are everyday standard procedures.”
Meanwhile, hundred’s of jobs and million’s of dollar remain lost to Storey County and others as the state struggles over what needs to be done regarding COVID-19 and legal brothels.