Bella's Hacienda Ranch in Wells, Nevada - image - Bella's Hacienda Ranch

Of any legal business in Nevada, sex work may pose the most flagrant possible violation of safe social distancing guidelines of any occupation. Since Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak closed nonessential businesses, a handful of sex workers have been sheltering in place at Bella’s Hacienda Ranch in Wells, Nevada.

In Wells, across the railroad tracks from City Hall and Saint Thomas Aquinas church are two legal brothels, Donna’s and Bella’s Hacienda Ranch. Bella Cummins is a serial entrepreneur and sole proprietor of her namesake business. She also owns Bella’s Restaurant and Espresso in Wells with her daughter. Last year she launched the Onesta Foundation, a nonprofit sex industry advocacy and education organization.

The Hacienda is shuttered, and day before yesterday Cummins went to her bank, Nevada State Bank, to apply for an emergency loan from the Small Business Administration (SBA) to help her business weather the COVID-19 state of emergency.

“It was interesting that the bank wanted to tell me that I wasn’t going to qualify and they weren’t going to send it in. I said, ‘the CARES relief Act has no restrictions,’ and I said, ‘of course, the Small Business Administration would have a restriction pertaining to the brothel business,’ however, this isn’t the case.”

The SBA guidelines for emergency loans cast a broad, inclusive net. The Ally could not find a CARES Act or SBA restriction that would prevent a brothel from applying for relief.

State Bank of Nevada spokesperson Sandi Milton said in an email that the bank could not find a clause that would prohibit a brothel from applying either. When asked if the bank told Cummins not to apply, there was no response.

According to the SBA website, the following entities affected by the novel coronavirus may be eligible for loans or a debt relief program:

Any small business concern that meets SBA’s size standards (either the industry based sized standard or the alternative size standard)

Any business, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, 501(c)(19) veterans organization, or Tribal business concern (sec. 31(b)(2)(C) of the Small Business Act) with the greater of: 500 employees, or that meets the SBA industry size standard if more than 500.

Any business with a NAICS Code that begins with 72 (Accommodations and Food Services) that has more than one physical location and employs less than 500 per location.

Sole proprietors, independent contractors, and self-employed persons.

Bella Cummins says her business has always faced a stiff cultural headwind. In a 2019 interview with The Ally, Cummins described a time when she may have been reluctant to insist the bank submit her loan application.

“In the initial days, survival was determined by your ability to keep a low profile,” Cummins said.  “You were literally supposed to keep your head below the sagebrush so you didn’t get it shot off. Being a madame was unpopular.  It was judged. And that’s the reason houses were always built across the tracks from town.

“They loved it when we came across and spent our money … but that was it. I learned that lesson very well, so I’ve spent the past 33 years or so being very silent.”

That is until the day before yesterday. Cummins described a recent phone call she had with Nevada State Bank officials.

“She (a Nevada State Bank representative) said, ‘well, my bosses are listening,’ and I said, ‘well, that’s great. I have no problem with any of you,'” Cummins recounted. “‘I just would like for you to file the application. If it gets rejected, I will go to the Nevada state elected officials. And then from there, it can go wherever it needs to go.’”

For Cummins, an anti-brothel bias is not an abstract relic of the past but a reality she continues to confront. A reality that drove a persistent concern that her application for emergency relief would be denied, but just a few days after making application, on April 16, the SBA notified Cummins that her application to the Paycheck Protection Program for some $70,000 had been approved.

Roughly 25 percent of the award is a grant, the remainder a no-interest loan.

In a followup letter, the very same day, Nevada State Bank said the SBA has notified them that the “initial allocation of funds in the Paycheck Protection Program has been reached and they have suspended the approval of new applications.”

According to Nevada State Bank, “Additional funding for the program is currently under review by Congress, and it appears there is strong bipartisan support to provide this funding.”

Nevada State Bank encouraged the applicant to petition their Congressional delegation to expedite the allocation of additional funds for small businesses. Cummins’ grant and loan would be awarded should additional money become available.

Congress adjourned for the weekend on Thursday April 16 without approving a Republican plan to add $250 billion to the small business loan program. On Wednesday, according to reports, Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives and Senate said they want to “tweak” the small business aid program before authorizing more money. The Ally asked Nevada Congressman Mark Amodei (NV-02) if more money was on the way.

“That depends if Dems are willing to come to the table with Republicans,” wrote Congressman Amodei’s spokesperson Logan Ramsey in an email. “Congressional Republicans saw this coming and tried for the last week to authorize more funding for this program through a standalone bill, but were blocked by Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer.”

Politics aside, being denied access to capital is an old story for Bella Cummins. Over decades, despite numerous attempts to borrow money, Cummins has had to build her brothel without a small business loan.

“Any lending institution will never lend money to someone in an industry similar to mine,” Cummins said. “So it’s truly the correct way to do business as far as the brothel’s concerned because you have to make it before you can spend it. You can never go into debt. And that’s an interesting concept, or you have to find an individual that’s willing to lend money to such a business.”

The bar in Bella’s Hacienda Ranch brothel in Wells, Nevada – photo: Bella’s Hacienda Ranch

Now that Cummins has almost won federal relief money, The Ally asked if she plans to take her operations to the Internet during the state of emergency. She referred to the Incel Movement as a good, bad example of what electronic communication means for in-person sex.

Incel is an abbreviation for Involuntary Celibate. For those who identify with the Incel Movement, online interactions effectively undermine their ability to form actual and meaningful sexual relationships.

“I understand that a lot of people do go that direction (online with sexually oriented businesses). However, there is nothing that’s going to replace a person’s need or desire for touch,” Cummins said.

“And even if a person was looking at it from the standpoint of they don’t need anybody, I think we should be very careful that it never gets into something that looks like the Incel Movement. That’s something that’s really … it’s really difficult and it’s really out there.

“And that’s one of the reasons that I believe that brothels will open anew when the pandemic is over. People need people. We’re social beings.”

At Bella’s Hacienda Ranch, sex workers are referred to as courtesans. Cummins says that women who work at the ranch, and legal sex workers across the state, fulfill many unexpected roles beyond sex, to include companionship and sex therapy. For Cummins, in-person communication is the essence of her service, so no effort is being made to shift operations to the Internet.

For now, Cummins continues to work on her memoir and manifesto, American Madame. The book explores female empowerment through sex for money and is expected out this summer.

After the novel coronavirus pandemic passes, Cummins says she will continue to work to create an industry that reflects a more honest appraisal of the human need for sex and a positive change in the status of sex industry workers and businesses.

“We really require one another Brian (Bahouth). And if we really look around, even if you go someplace for a moment, whether it’s the grocery store or the post office, people have masks and gloves and it looks as though we’ve become fearful of one another. And I believe that’s an awkward thing.

“Step into faith. Step into something that you believe in or you’ve always been taking care of … where you can actually know that there’s something greater than you out there and to surround yourself, even on your phones, with people that care about you, and reach out to other people. Are they okay?

“Inside the brothel industry we have dealt with many people isolated, and it’s a horrible place to be, so let’s learn from this. Bring out our compassion and our nonjudgmental awareness and be kind instead of fearful, kind instead of right.”

Brian Bahouth has been a public media journalist since 1994 and has lived in Reno since 2000. He first came to northern Nevada to be news director at KUNR, Reno Public Radio and has subsequently filed scores of reports for National Public Radio, Nevada Public Radio, Capital Public Radio and KVMR in Nevada City, California. He is co-founder of KNVC community radio in Carson City. Support his work.