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Worst. Game. Ever.

May 04, 20208 min read

If another AMTA chapter president calls or emails me for advice and love, I’m going to reach out to National for alimony. I love AMTA chapter leaders. Always have. They are the hard-scrabble true advocates on the ground who really know and care about massage therapists and what it’s like to be a massage therapist. In the last 3 weeks or so, I’ve received many calls and emails from these leaders saying, “My state is trying to open and I don’t know what to do. I’m not getting any clear guidance from National.” National says, “We can’t tell you what to do.”  Meanwhile, National is talking to the governors’ offices telling them to open massage therapy as soon as possible and creating loopholes for that mystery modality “medically necessary massage.” At least, that’s what’s happening here in Virginia.

So, you can’t tell me what to do and you certainly won’t do it in print or in public, but you can influence the people who ultimately will tell me what to do, even though those people don’t know what you should know about massage therapy and who, quite frankly don’t have time to care about massage therapy the way I’m paying you to care.

Our governors’ offices, our state boards, our associations, our spas and franchise owners are playing a terrible game of hot potato that rests firmly, or maybe not-so-firmly, on “we know it’s wrong, but maybe somebody else can make it sound right” reasoning.

When you play hot potato, you lose if you get caught holding the potato. You lose if you drop the potato. In this game, we all lose.

Anyone who is rushing to open their massage business right now should be very concerned by the global unwillingness to get caught with this very real public health potato.

On April 30th, Healwell launched a home-made, experimental educational video about what it might look like to go back to practice safe(ish)ly. Almost 2,000 people downloaded the course in the span of 48 hours. (Five days later we were up to 4,000.) We’re not amazing. We just filled an insane vacuum of leadership that has no business existing.

When you send your members an email that says, essentially, “You’d better go back to work when your governor says so because that’s the end of your unemployment benefits,” that’s not advocacy. That’s cowardice.

This is about public safety. Plain and simple.

Ooh, that’s hot! [Toss]

In Tracy Walton’s clear and thought-provoking blog last week, intended to reach out to spa and franchise owners, she points out that all of the people and organizations that say they are “doing everything they can to ensure safety” are, indeed, doing everything they can to show that they know that going back to massage is not safe, but that they plan to do it anyway.

They’re installing no-touch payment systems. Oh wait. Does that mean that contact is an issue?

They’re erecting plexiglass walls that will stand between clients and the receptionists with whom they will interact for maybe 90 seconds.  Must be that close contact is an issue.

State boards are changing license renewal requirements for the next year, so therapists don’t have to take live, hands-on courses. Sounds like it’s not safe for people to be in close, hands-on proximity… maybe for the next year or so even?

The thing that’s not getting fixed is the interaction during which the massage therapist and the client will spend an hour breathing the same air. 

Ouch. [Toss]

Nathan Nordstrom, Director of Massage Therapy Education and Training at Hand and Stone Massage and Facial Spa had the unenviable task of representing spas and franchises in an interview on ABMP’s new podcast series “Conversations in Quarantine.” He didn’t say he was speaking for all spas and franchises. In fact, I suspect that was not his intention, but he echoed what I’ve heard from spa and franchise owners here in Virginia and I don’t think his perspective is unique to Hand & Stone. When he shared that Hand & Stone “probably won’t” have clients wear masks, I was incredulous.

In addition, he said Hand & Stone is “looking at” therapists wearing masks, particularly if a client is “showing symptoms.”

How many kinds of irresponsible is this?

Masks can’t be optional. For clients or for therapists.

If a client is showing symptoms, why are they in your office?

And is the assumption, then, that if they’re not showing symptoms, we’re all good?

Ooh! Ah! Hot! Hot!

Mr. Nordstrom suggested, in his interview, that a good intake is “worth its weight in gold.” Really? Unless that intake involves a crystal ball or a 14-day LoJack-esque tracker, what you’ve just told me is that:

  1. You don’t understand how this virus works.

  2. You don’t care how it works if that means staying closed a bit longer.

  3. You are willing to risk other people’s lives.

When pressed on the question of when Hand & Stone spas would open, his response was similar to when he was asked about PPE. “We can’t answer for every governor.” “We have to make sure that the local jurisdiction is on board.”

Why are governors deciding when it’s safe to massage? Oh, I know. Because nobody who actually knows about massage is willing to hold the potato.

3 cartoon owls all pointing at each other while looking away

Here in Virginia, our governor’s office told massage therapists at a recent Task Force meeting to “ask your state board” for guidance. So, being the kinda guy I am, I wrote to the Board of Nursing (the board by which massage is regulated here in the Commonwealth). I expressed my concerns about the lack of preparation and clear guidance for massage therapists to return to practice. I asked for the Board’s recommendations about returning to practice. They told me, “The Virginia Board of Nursing regulates massage therapy in regards to the qualifications for licensure and the compliance of standards of professional conduct based on established law and regulation.” They went on to say that because “the Virginia Board of Nursing does not regulate massage therapy business or education,” they could not get involved in my concerns about returning to practice or what massage therapists do or don’t know before they return to practice.

So, “compliance of standards of professional conduct” doesn’t include public safety. Noted. But wait. Isn’t the protection of the public the very basis for the existence of licensing?

Oh, potato of hotness.

My contact at the Board of Nursing closed their email by suggested that I might find the following websites valuable (in this order):

AMTA: I checked. Endless equivocation and redirection back to the sites of others on this list. Also, a state-by-state update about what’s happening related to COVID.

CDC: Honestly, the best place for general information about stopping the spread of COVID, but it’s not really the CDC’s job to tell massage therapists what to do. These other groups should be taking the CDCs recommendations and making them specifically applicable to the practice of massage therapy.

Virginia Department of Health: See note above about CDC, but much less informative.

The governor: I may have mentioned that the governor’s office were the ones who told me to call the Board of Nursing in the first place. (Also, see our blog “Your Governor is Not a Massage Therapist.”)

FSMTB: These guys are doing what they can to wrangle the state boards, but FSMTB is not the boss of the state boards, so aside from giving me some contact information for another person or people who will patronize and ignore my concerns, FSMTB is a dead-end in terms of what I should do as an individual practitioner.

THIS, my friends, is a very hot potato.

Something is deeply wrong when my state regulatory board can’t advise me on the public safety aspects of my work. Something is even more deeply wrong when their answer is to direct me back to a too-influential, poorly-informed national association that can’t actually regulate what’s required for me to keep myself or the people I touch safe. When people who should be concerned about public safety abdicate their responsibility to do so in the interests of commerce and institutional safety, we are in very big trouble.

I asked our governor to let our massage therapy “advocates” know what other jobs need doing in the immediate to help the state recover. I understand that massage therapists can’t live on the dole collecting unemployment until there’s a vaccine or better testing, but we can work as COVID tracers. We can work as unemployment processors. We can take calls for the DMV or for doctors’ offices. We can do all kinds of safe and socially distant things until we can safely do what we love to do, what we live to do.

There is NO leadership.

There is NO clarity.

There is NO accountability.

There is NO tolerance for saying unpopular things.

Which leads me to the hottest potato of all.

These organizations are doing what we’re doing. We are tossing the potato to them every single day when we say, “I’m waiting to hear what the governor/board/associations say.” They’re just like us. They want someone, anyone else to tell them what to do.

If we keep playing this game, everybody loses. And the therapists and clients lose bigger than the spa and franchise owners or anyone else. A client calls the spa or your practice three days after their appointment, “I just tested positive for COVID.” What happens? The owners might get sued, but therapists and clients might get sick and maybe die.

That’s not fear-mongering. That’s science.

There’s no babysitter here. We have to do what’s ethical. We know what that is. The science about spread is clear. The return of 300,000 massage therapists to practice will spread COVID.

It’s going to hurt, but I hope you’ll join us in saving lives by holding the hottest potato our profession has ever known.

hands holding a potato shaped like a heart

We will massage again.

If we go back today we do harm. End of story. We can’t screen enough. We can’t clean enough. We can’t make it safe enough… yet.

Stick with us. We’ll get there together.

blog author image

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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