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An Open Letter to Massage Therapy Consumers

May 15, 20204 min read

I have been a massage therapist since 2005. If, in pre-COVID-19 times, you were a massage therapy consumer, thank you. You have helped make my life and work deeply meaningful. I will speak, for the first and last time in this piece, for all massage therapists when I say, I miss you.

Now I have a request. When massage therapy “opens up” in your state or community, please don’t get a massage… yet.

Show me that you care enough about me and about you and about the people who live with you to stay home. Massage therapy cannot happen safely at this time in the COVID-19 trajectory in the U.S. No amount of PPE (whether professional-grade or homemade), disinfection, temperature-taking, or screening questions can make massage therapy safe right now. I am looking forward to working with you again when testing, tracing and quality PPE are standard trappings of daily life.

There will be a time when it can be made safe, but that time is not now.

Franchises and individual, private practitioners will do all we can to reassure you (and ourselves) about what we’ve done to make our practices safe. We will employ no-touch payment systems and we will take your temperature with no-touch thermometers.

Then we will touch you — a lot.

We want so much to provide care, to touch, to reestablish connection and to just be a part of the deep global longing to get things “back to normal.” And still, we will fail. Not because we don’t care, but because good intentions and earnest disinfection will not make COVID-19 less contagious during what is arguably one of the most physically intimate healthcare interventions available: massage therapy.

You can wear a mask. Your massage therapist can wear a mask. The massage table and doorknobs and waiting-room furniture and all the rest can be bathed in a bleach solution. It won’t stop the transmission that’s likely to happen when two people are in the same spit-space for more than 15 minutes. When you enter that treatment room, there is no calculus that will protect you from the reality that you are sharing that room and that air with every other client who has received a massage at least that day, but possibly over the last handful of days.

Franchises will excitedly tell you that they’re doing staggered appointment times and that they have engineered a truly genius system where you will wait in your car outside until it’s “your turn” and the previous client has left the space. They will reassuringly present you with a little flier that explains how the room in which you are about to receive a massage has been painstakingly disinfected in a manner that would make the CDC blush with pride.

None of this matters. There is no such thing as a safe one-on-one interaction in the present world of COVID-19.

Massage therapists are deeply divided on these points. We want so badly to return to work, to get back to order, to put our loving and skilled hands on your touch-hungry backs, necks and feet. In fact, some have never stopped working and will tell you that “it’s been fine.” We don’t want to believe that, for the first time in the history of our massage therapy practices, our work could truly have a life or death impact.

You’ve been telling us for years that we are “life savers” and that you “couldn’t live without us.” We have built our relationships with you and with our own work on these stories that are philosophically true, but scientifically specious.

When we stopped touching you, sometime in mid-to-late March, we didn’t know much about COVID-19. Now terms like “COVID toes”, “ventilator” and “precipitous decline” have become part of our common vernacular. We know more today about the mercurial and deadly nature of this virus, and still, we are no closer to containing it.

This should give us all pause.

We are aching to touch you. To heal. To love. To help you function and to alleviate your pain. And yes, we are running out of money. Here’s the hardest part. Our financial troubles are not your responsibility. Our broke-ness doesn’t make COVID-19 less dangerous for you or for us.

The safest choice is for the massage therapy profession to stand down until we can do better than “sort-of safe.” Each therapist. Each business. Each practice. We will need to make our own way and find other sources of income and meaning until the thing we feel most passionate about can be done without the inevitability of harm. Help us make that choice by waiting in safety with us until we can meet again with more confidence.

Before you make that massage appointment, please ask yourself, “Is this worth dying for?”

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Cal Cates

Cal is one of Healwell’s founders and its Executive Director. Cal speaks around the world on a variety of topics related to integrative medicine, emotional self-care for practitioners and the mechanics and politics of introducing massage therapy into clinical settings. They have been participating in research, teaching and developing curriculum for massage therapy courses focused on hospital-based practice, oncology massage and end of life care since 2007. Cal is passionate about elevating the profession of massage therapy and also about broader and more seamless integration of massage therapists into mainstream healthcare.

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