Before the coronavirus pandemic, tourist-dependent Nevada had a notorious attraction: It was the only place in the U.S. 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 said many of the licensed prostitutes, who work as independent contractors, have struggled to qualify for unemployment benefits since closures began in March and some have opted to take their work into the shadows, offering sex illegally.

Although legal bordellos might seem incompatible with social distancing, sex workers and brothel owners said 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’re certainly not masked for any of those things.’

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 might let counties decide whether to allow those businesses to open, as long as COVID-19 infections aren’t surging.

Prostitution is only legal in Nevada’s estimated 20 licensed brothels, whose sex workers undergo regular tests for sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS and obtain required work cards from local law enforcement after passing an FBI background check.

Other brothel workers who are not comfortable linking their faces to online sex work have had a harder time pivoting to virtual services, she said. Finding a job outside the stigmatized sex industry also can be tough, Little said, because background checks can reveal the work authorization cards prostitutes must have in brothels.

Allissa Starr, who was working at Sheri’s Ranch brothel in Pahrump, about an hour outside Las Vegas, said some women she worked with are illegally offering sex for money despite virus concerns.

Starr said she’s able to cover her bills but can no longer put thousands in savings. She moved to Pittsburgh to live closer to family and save on rent. She’s starting a self-care business but said if Nevada’s brothels reopen, she would come back to work one week a month.

‘It’s a way to easily provide money for me and my family, and it’s a way to provide security,’ Starr said.
Reopening the brothels, Starr said, is ‘a personal risk, just like traveling. If you wear your mask, if the girls got COVID tests before they came to the ranch, I think it could be done safely.’

When brothels in Nevada closed, sex worker Allissa Star moved back home to Pittsburgh to save money, but is ready to return.

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