BY LYNN EDMONDS
Inside the pink walls of Spa Castle is a world unto itself. A jade-studded sauna in the shape of an igloo glints invitingly; a pair of men lie utterly still under an infrared light with pillows over their eyes; two women chat in the single-sex pool. In one room, patrons are sleeping on cushioned lounge chairs. In another, they can meditate around a burbling fountain. The hottest sauna, at 182 degrees, exudes a pleasant, earthy smell. It’s made of Loess, or “yellow mud,” in Korean, which is thought to fight obesity and chronic fatigue. On the rooftop, small groups of three and four wade from one side of the pool to the other, or sit up against the wall, where water jets blast their back, massaging stiff muscles.
It’s a quiet Tuesday afternoon in the 60,000 sq. ft. College Point spa, which has been a mainstay since owner Steve Chon opened it in 2009, with the aim of bringing a traditional Korean spa to New York City. His business, valued at $25 million, has proven to be so popular that he opened additional spas in Manhattan and Dallas, Texas.
But recently, the facility has been coping with negative press following the near-drowning of a young girl in February. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene mandated the spa to shut down its pools for almost two months, from Feb. 29 to April 22, in order for the facility to meet safety recommendations from a third-party investigator.
But now the spa is back in business and determined to prove to customers that they are trustworthy and reliable.
“They’ve been in business for nine years, with as many as 300,000 customer visits a year, and have had one life-threatening accident in that time,” Thomas Mulligan, a spokesperson for the company, said. “They believe their safety record is the best in the industry.”
The three-story spa features almost every type of relaxation option, including wet and dry saunas ranging in temperature from 136 to 181 degrees with different therapeutic minerals, pools with massage jets, infrared light therapy, massage, reflexology, a sleeping room, and nude and clothed areas. They employ 110 people, 60 percent of whom reside in Queens, the company said.
Mulligan noted that many of the jobs, like physical therapist, are career-oriented.
Prior to the re-opening, The Department of Health issued a statement that the College Point facility “has undergone a rigorous process to correct violations and has met our requirement to implement a new safety plan.”
The spa stationed lifeguards by every spa pool, trained additional staff members in CPR, posted new safety signage, updated sewage lines, renovated steam rooms and installed flow meters.
They also installed anti-entrapment covers on all suction lines that conform to federal safety standards.
As of the re-opening, the spa is complying with the more rigorous safety standards typically applied to swimming pools, not spas.
“[The DOH] recommended, and Spa Castle agreed, to put themselves under the same set of safety regulations as swimming pools,” Mulligan said.
“Spas are an anomaly under New York regulations. They fall in the middle between health clubs and full fledged swimming pools and there’s not a separate set of safety regulations for them,” he explained.
Most of the facility’s 21 pools are only about two feet in depth, and are geared toward seated jet-massage. The deepest, an outdoor pool, is three feet and six inches. No swimming or diving is allowed in any of the pools.
They increased the number of lifeguards by nearly 50 percent, from 35 to 52.
“They have lifeguards stationed at pools that you might think are a little too shallow for that,” Mulligan said, referring to the spa pools.
But not everyone believed that the changes were enough. When the spa re-opened, state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) said he believed more oversight was still needed.
“We should not and cannot expect that Spa Castle will suddenly self-police itself in the absence of oversight,”
Avella said, asking the city to create a task force to monitor Spa Castle and similar establishments.
Mulligan contended that the company would welcome the oversight “if it’s applied fairly.”
“Spa Castle worked very hard and closed down its pools and undertook expensive renovations and added considerable staff to improve its safety,” he said. “I think they’d welcome an effort by the Senator to make sure that those standards apply citywide to all facilities.”
Spa Castle came under further criticism in March for a less serious and more salacious issue when the New York Post wrote a piece entitled “NYC’s ‘sex spa’ is grossing people out.”
But Mulligan insisted the facility was family-friendly.
“The facility did an investigation after that Post piece, and they looked at their film, and the whole thing was completely overblown,” Mulligan said.
Nonetheless, Mulligan added that “out of an excess of caution” the pool pushed back their opening hours from 6 to 8 a.m., to avoid attracting an after-party crowd weekend mornings.
“They’ve tried very hard to be good corporate citizens,” Mulligan stressed.
Reach Lynn Edmonds at (718) 357-7400 x127, firstname.lastname@example.org or @Ellinoamerikana