Madame Bella Cummins in the bar of Bella's Hacienda Ranch brothel in Wells, Nevada - photo: courtesy of Bella Cummins

Under Phase 2 of Nevada’s Roadmap to Recovery, only a few business sectors remain closed: adult entertainment establishments, brothels, nightclubs and day clubs, live sporting event venues, and live performance venues with spectators.

Madame Bella Cummins owns and operates Bella’s Hacienda Ranch brothel in Wells, Nevada. She says she’s glad that massage parlors, body piercing and tattoo parlors are allowed to responsibly open and bears those businesses no malice, but she is livid that legal brothels must remain closed.

“Yes, it is something of a sexual nature, however, what does that have to do with exchanging the droplets that come from breath,” Bella asked in a phone interview. “There is no kissing and exchange of saliva. There is none of that. So the client wears a mask – okay.

“What else is required except sanitary conditions, which we already deal with. If that is what we already do, then what is the concern about opening brothels?”

Since the closure of nonessential businesses on March 17, the incidence of COVID-19 infection in Nevada has steadily declined, and on May 7, a week ahead of schedule, the state entered Phase 1 of Nevada’s Roadmap to Recovery.

Acknowledging the many differences between Nevada’s urban and rural communities, Governor Steve Sisolak deferred some of the reopening decision making to local leaders. To that end, the Governor created the Local Empowerment Advisory Panel, or LEAP, a group that serves as a resource for counties as they work through the necessary requirements to reopen and share best practices and guidelines for local communities.

Clark County Commission Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick represents urban counties on LEAP, and Eureka County Commission Chair J.J. Goicoechea represents rural counties. Other members include representatives from the Nevada Association of Counties, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, and the Director of the Nevada Department of Business and Industry.

Bella’s Hacienda brothel is in Wells, Nevada, just off Interstate 80 and halfway between Elko and West Wendover.

Hopeful to reopen during Phase 2, Bella wrote a detailed set of operational protocols for the Hacienda in mid-April. She recently submitted a copy to J.J. Goicoechea with hopes that ultimately her brothel could open along with the other Phase 2 business sectors.

A New Way of Having Legal Sex

Legal sex workers are tested weekly for sexually transmitted diseases. Bella Cummins would add a novel coronavirus test.

Sex workers would receive daily temperature checks. Brothel staff would take customer temperature upon arrival.

All customers and sex workers would wear a mask.

Brothel sex workers are independent contractors and lease a personal space where the transactions are negotiated and sex acts occur. Under Bella’s reopening plan, there would be a separate designated sex room that could be more easily disinfected after each use.

According to Bella, showers and hand washing are already a central part of sex at the Hacienda, for client and worker alike.

By state law, condoms are mandatory for all oral and other legal sex acts in Nevada.

Anonymity and the Proximity of Intimacy

For Bella Cummins, few aspects of running a brothel are more important than the anonymity of customers. As she describes it, this ethical responsibility remains a priority under new protocols. As part of the new way of doing business, every customer would have to sign a disclaimer that releases the brothel from coronavirus liability.

What are safe brothel practices?

“Safe practices is asking pertinent questions. Having a disclaimer in the event somebody wants to claim something happened or didn’t happen there because no one exchanges names,” Bella said.

Under her new terms, each client would need to acknowledge that they are healthy and know proximity safety protocols. Bella said that she and her team will do their best to keep the novel coronavirus at bay with sanitation, education, and the use of masks and prophylactics; but every customer would have to take personal responsibility for their health status.

J.J. Goicoechea did not respond to a request for comment, but in an email exchange with Bella Cummins, Goicoechea said the Governor nixed the idea of allowing brothels to reopen under Phase 2.

“I haven’t been able to move the needle. I hate lawyers almost as much as I hate spending money. I can’t tell you what to do Bella, but it appears we can’t get movement. The guidance was provided by LEAP. It wasn’t accepted, and we haven’t been successful the last two days,” Goicochea wrote in an email.

The Governor’s office has not responded to a request for comment.

“If the Governor is working to put us out of business, it won’t happen. It’ll never happen,” Bella Cummins said. “There’s enough people, that along with the rural brothels could just lawyer up, and are they ready for that? This is a legal business within the state of Nevada, that’s properly controlled, pays taxes, and is now being discriminated against.

The Illegal Sex Industry

In Nevada, state law allows for any county that has a population of fewer than 400,000 people to have a brothel. Individual cities that are in these counties then have the option to allow brothels or outlaw them. The state’s two largest population centers, Reno and Las Vegas, have stringent laws outlawing sex-for-money business operations. Douglas, Eureka, Lincoln and Pershing counties have also banned legal sex businesses.

But the illegal sex industry in Nevada is hardly a secret.

Cards touting the sexual services of men and women litter sidewalks on and around the Las Vegas Strip.

Cards advertising sexual services on the sidewalk in Las Vegas – photo: pgchamberlin is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Where sex workers used to walk the street, they now present themselves on the Internet in a variety of forums, from Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist, Instagram or as massage parlors with storefronts.

“I know it’s in Reno. I know it’s in Vegas,” Bella said. “The trucks that go up and down the strip that say call this number with the pretty lady on this big, I’m going to say trailer as big as a semi – all that will start as soon as the casinos are open.”

In Reno and Las Vegas, the line between legal and illegal sex is hazy. The size of the illegal sex industry is poorly quantified. Craigslist and various dating platforms offer ways for illegal sex workers to connect with customers. The list of escort services is long in Reno and Las Vegas.

A first-time offense for selling or buying sex for money is a misdemeanor in both Las Vegas and Reno.

Bella Cummins argued that the Governor and those who decide which businesses open under Phase 2 or subsequent Phases know that the illegal sex trade is robust in the state’s biggest cities.

“If something is known, and it’s still okay for illegal activities to go on, then why is it less than okay for legal activities to go on in a controlled environment,” Bella asked rhetorically.

Bella said her business is largely misunderstood and she’s eager to speak with the Governor directly. She said that perceptions about the legal sex industry are deeply rooted in morally judgmental stereotypes, ignorance.

“There is an opportunity here to really address and update the idea of legal brothels looking as though they’re black eyes for Nevada, when in my most humble opinion, it’s the illegal threat of disease, uncontrolled sexual activities that should be giving Nevada it’s black eye, both of them, both eyes.”

Brian Bahouth is the editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally. He 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.