Pandemic makes prostitution taboo in Nevada's legal brothels

Before the coronavirus pandemic, tourist-dependent Nevada had a notorious attraction: It was the only place in America where someone could legally pay for sex.

These days, even in the state known for sin, the business is taboo.

Legal brothels have been shuttered for nearly a year, leaving sex workers to offer less-lucrative alternatives like online dates or nonsexual escort services. Those in the industry say many of the licensed prostitutes, who work as independent contractors, have struggled to qualify for unemployment benefits since closures began last March and some have opted to take their work into the shadows, offering sex illegally.

While the business of legal bordellos may seem incompatible with social distancing, sex workers and brothel owners say that’s not the case. Like other close-contact industries such as massage therapy and dental services, they contend brothels should be allowed to reopen with protective measures.

“We could easily do work at arm’s length, just the same as they do within the massage parlors, which are open in the state of Nevada,” sex worker Alice Little said. “You can go to a dentist and have him put his hands in your mouth. You can go to a tattoo parlor and get your face tattooed right now. You can get piercings put in your face. You’re certainly not masked for any of those things."

So far, Nevada officials haven’t agreed.

A state task force that makes recommendations on coronavirus restrictions hasn’t responded to pleas from brothel owners seeking a way to reopen. And a lawsuit Little filed against Gov. Steve Sisolak last year fizzled.

The Democratic governor recently said brothels, along with other adult entertainment like nightclubs and strip clubs, would stay closed at least through May 1. After that, the state may let counties decide whether to allow those businesses to open, as long as COVID-19 infections aren’t surging.

Nevada, like many states, saw a spike of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths around the winter holidays, but since mid-January, those numbers have been steadily declining.