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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
July 21, 2006

Bathhouses to join
HIV prevention pact

Cleveland--The fight against HIV may be firmly entrenched in the new Flex Cleveland when it opens.

Charles Fleck, the owner of the Flex chain, was set to sign a memorandum of understanding outlining how the establishment will work with the city and the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland to provide HIV and sexual health education for its employees, offer HIV testing in the bathhouse along with free condoms, post rules against illicit drugs and make information about safer sex readily available both in the facility and on its website.

The city�s other bathhouse, Club Cleveland, has already agreed to the measures, and owner Ray Wolf took it a step further, instituting the policy in five other Clubs he owns, including one in Columbus. He also believes the management of three additional Club bathhouses in which he holds a financial stake will implement the rules.

However, when William Tiedemann, the HIV and AIDS director for the Cleveland health department, went to Flex on July 19 to have the memorandum signed by Fleck, he was told that the document needed to be cleared by the company�s attorneys.

The AIDS Taskforce has also asked the Flex chain to extend the committment to their bathhouses in four other cities, including Columbus. They are considering the request, the Taskforce said, and will decide soon.

Taskforce executive director Earl Pike began a crusade for community accountability when he learned of Flex�s impending reopening.

The Flex bathhouse, which had previously been located on West Ninth Street in the Warehouse District, closed almost half a decade ago to begin work on its new location in the former Greyhound drivers� dormitory and garage at East 26th St. and Hamilton Ave.

The work and city permits are nearly finished, and the facility is expected to open its doors within weeks. An open house was held on July 2.

Pike said that he favored working with the bathhouses themselves over the model used in California, where cities regularly inspect bathhouses to ensure that no unsafe sex is taking place.

�It is not a strategy that tries to legislate the management of a bathhouse, which would violate the democratic principles of privacy and freedom of assembly--and which probably would be unenforceable in the end anyway,� he noted.

While media coverage of the contentious exchanges between the AIDS Taskforce and Flex might lead the public to believe Pike opposed the reopening of the business, he insisted, �I�m not opposed to bathhouses, I�m in favor of looking at the environment and maximizing the ability of individuals to practice safe sex.�

When Flex�s old location closed, they announced the move, but in the ensuing five years, the new location took on a mythical status, with rumors that it would open at various dates, all of which came and went with no apparent activity.

�I had heard rumors for years, but the rumors were very vague,� Pike said.

While he acknowledges that his organization did outreach in the old location, it was sporadic at best.

�The reason we went with the MOU [memorandum of understanding] approach with this is because it was episodic,� he noted, saying that one manager would agree to testing, then a new manager would come in and rescind the invitation.

�It has to be from the top down,� he said. �This gives us an institutional framework to talk about common accountability.�

The new location, in a light industrial area east of downtown, is intended to go beyond the idea of a bathhouse simply as a sex club, much as Club Cleveland�s new location on Detroit Avenue did with its extensive gym facilities.

Flex has three pools, a gym, restaurant and sauna. In addition to the traditional lockers and rooms found in bathhouses across the globe, Flex Cleveland will also have more spacious hotel rooms, rented at normal hotel rates, including rooms with whirlpools and a presidential suite with a piano.

Attempts to reach Flex Cleveland for comment were unsuccessful.

 

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