Lake Steam Baths is in hot water. The 93-year-old spa and bathhouse at 3540 West Colfax Avenue has seen tough times before, but it's been struggling to stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s getting to the point where I’m exhausted and tired,” says owner Amy Hyman. “I don’t want to lose the business, but that’s the path that I feel I’m going down.”
Russian immigrants Harry and Ethyl Hyman opened Lake Steam Baths in 1927, catering to Russian Jews who'd settled in this part of west Denver. As people became more familiar and comfortable with the bath process and all of its health benefits, Lake Steam Baths grew into a popular destination, weathering recessions and depressions, booms and busts.
It's been a family business from the start. Amy Hyman inherited it after her husband, Hannon, grandson of Harry and Ethyl, passed away five years ago. “Back then, there were difficult days,” she recalls. “But it was amazing because it always seemed like on those challenging days, the people would come in and thank me for continuing and still being there. They let me know that they supported me.”
Back in the day, famous politicians and boxers frequented the baths, she says. Today — or at least until the pandemic — Lake Steam Baths is more family-oriented. “It’s a community. It’s all walks of life, it’s generational," Hyman says. "When I was open on a normal day, I could have three to four generations in there sharing the experience.”
But while there might have been members of three or four generations, they were all of the same gender. "Once you're in the baths, everyone is equal," Hyman says. "We're naked and the same."
Lake Steam Baths is a single-sex bathhouse, with different days reserved for men and women. For the past two decades, Mondays and Thursdays have been "ladies' days"; two years ago, Hyman made Sunday evenings women-only, too. The rest of the time was reserved for men (except for Tuesdays, when the facility closed for cleaning).
Customers would pay a $22 entry fee and then stay for hours at the schvitz, as it's known in Yiddish, using everything from the sauna to the eucalyptus steam room to the large bath with a whirlpool. The spa also offered normal and reflexology massage therapy, seaweed scrubs for men and salt/soap scrubs for women, and foot bath detox. Lake Steam Baths even has a deli, renowned for its corned beef sandwiches and red and green chile.
But the deli, like the rest of the facility, closed on March 19 as the state ordered all but essential businesses shuttered during Governor Jared Polis's stay-at-home orders.
Over the past six weeks, the state started relaxing some of those restrictions. Indoor gyms and recreation facilities are now allowed to reopen at 25 percent capacity or fifty people, whichever number is smaller. But those guidelines don't really apply to Lake Steam Baths.
During each announcement of new guidelines for restaurants, hair salons, pools, gyms and other enterprises over the past few weeks, Hyman hoped that her unique business might be included, but it wasn't. “It’s like this little morsel that’s dropped in front of me every month and then pulled just far enough away that I can’t quite reach it,” she says.
Hyman says she's been told by the city that, for now, she can offer massage services, which puts Lake Steam Baths at less than 10 percent capacity. She's also allowed to book private baths; she's charging $100 for parties of one to six people from the same family for hour-and-a-half sessions, sanitizing after each one. “That’s my Hail Mary," she explains. "I’m doing anything and everything I can."
Among the other things she's done: requested that the city submit a variance request on behalf of Lake Steam Baths to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Under Appendix G of Polis's Safer at Home Order, if Hyman wants to reopen at a capacity larger than the state currently allows, she needs to meet local criteria and then have the variance approved by the CDPHE; the process involves extensive collaboration between the city and state.
The Denver City Attorney's Office, which is the clearinghouse for such requests, informed Hyman that in order to submit a variance request to the state, the city has to evaluate proposed safety protocols, and also collect letters from all Denver hospitals that make it clear they've reviewed the plan and support the request. The city then forwards the request — usually with between thirty and seventy pages of documentation — to the state, where CDPHE reps review it.
Dan Shah, an advocate for small businesses along West Colfax, helped Hyman write a detailed variance request late last month, including proposed safety precautions such as temperature checks, a customer log, extra towels, cleaning of common areas and spas/baths three times a day, showering and social distancing requirements, and a limited number of visitors and employees. In the application, Hyman noted that Lake Steam Baths operates traditional facilities created for health benefits.
In that application, Hyman also asked to offer limited services: four massage therapists at a time; three people in the steam room sitting eight feet apart, with masks; six people in the dry sauna sitting eight feet apart, with masks; six people in the locker room eight feet apart, with masks. She did not ask for the pool to be reopened at this time.
Deanne Durfee, director of municipal operations for the city attorney's office, responded to Hyman's proposal on June 9, telling her which operations complied with the state order and which ones would require a variance request. Lake Steam Baths could offer massages to four people at time, as well as open the whirlpool to three people, as long as they practice social distancing. But the requests to open the steam room, dry sauna and locker room were all denied.
Hyman submitted a revised variance request to the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment on June 18. In it, she asked for a maximum occupancy of 28 people, just over 25 percent of the normal 100-person occupancy; access to the steam room for just two people and the sauna for six, all practicing social distancing of six feet. She also requested that the locker room be open to six people, with social distancing and regulated sanitization. There would be no more than ten customers allowed in the facility at one time, and no more than ten employees on hand.
The DDPHE has approved her proposal, she says, but she's still waiting for the okay from the city attorney's office.
“The rumor is that they’re not going to open the baths and sauna until after the second wave, which would be August or September,” Hyman says. “And I can’t do that. I just can’t.”
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Hyman is especially frustrated by the current statement because she'd recently had major work done at Lake Steam Baths: She upgraded the steam room, improved the pool, invested $20,000 in a boiler and $18,000 in a new sauna oven. Now, most times of the day, the steam room and sauna sit empty while Hyman waits at the front desk and helps the few people who come in each day.
Those who aren't yet able to use the Lake Steam Baths services are trying to help. A GoFundMe campaign launched on Hyman's behalf has raised $17,190 so far; Hyman says she used it to help cover her property taxes, which run $40,000. She's paid off the mortgage on the property, which includes an 11,000-square-foot building and a parking lot across the street. But while West Colfax real estate is appreciating, Hyman would rather reopen Lake Steam Baths than have to sell the place.
She wants this 93-year-old business to move on from the fourth generation to the next.
“It’s insanity,” Hyman says. “But I have to remember, I am surviving.”