The New Orleans City Council voted unanimously Thursday to ban strip club employees younger than 21 from dancing nude or partially nude but agreed to allow employees who are 18 to 20 to continue working at the clubs in other roles.
It was the first time the council weighed in on the age issue in a quarter century and culminated a debate that began last summer after a 19-year-old dancer was found dead on the interstate.
It also came a few months after more than a half-dozen clubs in the French Quarter drew sanctions from state officials over allegations of prostitution and drug dealing on their premises.
The move heartened activists who claim the clubs that line Bourbon Street are hubs for prostitution and drugs, and who have urged the city to take a stronger role in protecting the industry’s workers from exploitation.
They were pitted against industry representatives who said the council has no business acting as morality police.
The new law makes it illegal for new employees younger than 21 to dance, perform or entertain while naked or wearing clothing that “does not completely and opaquely cover genitals, pubic region, buttock and female breast below a point immediately above the top of the areola.”
The new rules do not apply to employees under 21 who already are working as dancers.
Clubs that violate the new sanctions could have their city permit to sell alcohol suspended or revoked.
For Jim Kelly, of Covenant House, the shelter for homeless young people, Thursday’s vote was the continuation of a fight that he thought had been won 25 years ago, when the council last put restrictions on the age of Bourbon Street dancers.
The previous ordinance banned dancers under 21 from performing nude but only specified areas below the waist that needed to be covered. Some club owners took that as permission for dancers under 21 to perform topless.
“Our shared belief from day one was that, if you have to be 21 to drink in one of these establishments … you would have to be 21 to take off your clothes in one of these establishments,” Kelly told council members.
Kelly approached the council in July after 19-year-old Jasilas Wright, a dancer at Stiletto’s Cabaret on Bourbon Street, died after being left on Interstate 10 in Metairie by a man investigators said was her pimp.
The owners of Stiletto’s were also implicated in a state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control investigation late last year in which agents alleged prostitution and illegal drug activity at several French Quarter strip clubs.
Ike Spears, an attorney for three clubs on and near Bourbon Street, told council members they were unfairly punishing an entire class of businesses for the bad behavior of a few.
He and other advocates for the industry said well-managed clubs are an economic cushion for young adults in school or supporting families. Those individuals might otherwise turn to illegal activity to make money, they said.
“The council is imposing their moral standards on other people,” Spears said.
The objections had appeared to sway Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey, who indicated Wednesday she would vote against the ordinance but supported a weakened version Thursday.
Rather than ban any employees younger than 21 at the clubs, as originally proposed, the council decided to apply the new rules only to dancers.
Council members also directed the City Planning Commission to hold a public hearing on the creation of an interim zoning district that would keep any new strip clubs from opening in the Quarter for a year. Passage of that motion automatically puts the moratorium into effect. The commission also will study whether and how such clubs should be limited and regulated.
“There are a number of places who have been a lot more thoughtful in how they regulate entertainment industries throughout the country,” said Councilman Jason Williams, who coauthored the ordinance. “It’s important that we are equally if not more thoughtful, and this process will be a continuation of that.”
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.