Akasha Larson runs a small one-woman massage practice out of her home (full disclosure: I've booked massages with Larson in the past).
As a licensed massage therapist (LMT), she's been working in the field for more than a decade and can trace her roots back through time in Wisconsin, the Santa Fe School of Massage and elsewhere. Many of her clients fall under the umbrella of pain management, with Larson estimating she sees some two or three times per week.
In the early days of the pandemic, however, she was forced to put her business on hold alongside much of the world. By March 15, Larson was temporarily closed outright, and she's been facing a tough time applying for unemployment, thinking about clients in pain and dealing with the fallout of an international health scare, all while trying to get clear answers about how to safely resume her practice.
But with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announcing Thursday that spas and massage therapists can go back to work in a limited capacity starting June 1, Larson's not sure she's ready—and she says there's a wide gamut of LMTs in similar positions.
The state released an updated version of its All Together New Mexico guidelines for COVID-19 safety alongside Lujan Grisham's proclamation, but Larson says she still feels paralyzed. In a lengthy email sent out to her clientele this week, she notes the governor's announcement was "the first we have heard about it as massage therapists…and not for lack of trying," and that it'll still be at least a little while before she accepts clients again.
Her fear, she says, is that by lumping massage therapy in with gyms, barber shops and salons, there's not enough for LMTs to go on when it comes to reopening safely.
"We just have no idea where we fit in," Larson tells SFR. "My concern and anxiety, even though I'm self-employed and can make my own decisions, is that all these people are going to have to go to work again, and…they definitely do not take into account the amount of human contact we have, the duration of a treatment and the confined spaces we work in."
In the updated guidelines, the state suggests maintaining social distance for clients, regularly sanitizing work areas, lowering density such as in waiting rooms and making arrangements for contactless payment. It also says to wear PPE such as masks and gloves when possible—though Larson says these items may not be enough. Instead, she points to Washington State's new COVID-19 guidelines for massage therapists as more specific and comprehensive. Among them are items based in medical need, cleaning and even linens.
Local LMT Jackson Mathey has similar fears to Larson's. He's also a graduate of the Santa Fe School of Massage and has been working professionally for six years. Mathey got his start in hotels and spas, eventually opening a small private practice. Since the pandemic began, Mathey has been forced to close that practice indefinitely, and it's possible he'll need to return to hotel work, particularly if he winds up as one of the self-employed New Mexicans asked to repay unemployment benefits due to a Department of Workforce Solutions error—something he says is a very real fear.
Whatever happens, he's in no rush to start seeing clients again, either, especially in a hotel or spa.
"Most spas hire us as independent contractors with almost all of the clauses you'd need to fulfill as an employee," he explains. "But you have to provide your own insurance and pay for the spa to be on your liability—and my insurance wouldn't even cover me if I got a client sick with COVID."
Like Larson, Mathey says he's continually been waiting for more specific guidance.
"That's the underlying sting for all of us," he says. "Being lumped in with gyms, salons, other businesses of that sort, it does put us in a more fragile space, because we don't have an advocacy group, we don't have effective testing or any guidelines as to how to practice, and it's pushing people who don't make a lot of money. We don't do it for the money, that's clear, but it's a difficult decision where we're going to have to work to put a meal on the table or pay rent."
In Taos, LMT and massage educator Kirstie Segarra says she's more prepared than most therapists. With 24 years under her belt, her practice already serves clientele with specific needs, and other than ordering surgical masks for herself and potential clients, she says, "I don't really need to make any changes."
Still, she says, that doesn't explain how and why massage therapy has been included alongside gyms and salons for reopening. Segarra previously served on the state's Massage Therapy Board, but left in 2013 and now says,"the mission of the board is to protect the public…but they are not interested in those of us who are leaders in the industry—or our input—and this has been an ongoing issue."
No one asked her about any of it, she explains, nor do their sporadic meetings (only three or four times a year) provide proper access and opportunity for LMTs looking to self-advocate. New Mexico is already one of the hardest states to get a massage therapy license, according to Segarra, with 650 contact hours required as opposed to most other states' 500. Every two years, LMTs are also required to take continuing education classes and a test to maintain their licensure. Right now, though, that's the least of Segarra's concerns.
"The issue is more like, are you a sole practice? Is it a spa an environment where you see a lot of people crossing over each other?" she says. "There are indicators people have talked about like pre-screening, but there's no 100% intervention we can do, in truth, to prevent the spread. From a medical perspective, there's a risk. Period. But what we can do is space clients out, make sure people are following precautions, thoroughly sanitize between clients, liability waivers—what we can do is know our clients."
The Massage Therapy Board did not respond to SFR's requests for comment, and messages left for Sunrise Springs and Ojo Caliente were not returned.
Hotel La Fonda's director of marketing Britta Andersson tells SFR by email that she doesn't anticipate spa services to reopen at the hotel until late this summer, but that "our massage therapists are all contracted, so it would be up to them if they feel comfortable resuming treatments—when the state allows them."
A front desk clerk at the Hotel Santa Fe tells SFR that its spa, and by extension its massage services, will not reopen just yet, and there isn't a specific reopening date in the pipeline.
The choice, Larson says, could easily become more about paying the bills and working in unsafe conditions than practicing with the best interests of massage therapists and clients in mind. Either way, the lack of communication from the Massage Therapy Board has her vexed.
"There's no security knowing you're going to have you client base back, but knowing you're also opening up your circle to all of those clients and who they're seeing," she says. "It feels weird to have 'direction' from the governor, but nothing from the actual place that regulates your license."