Attendance has declined at the 10 homosexual bathhouses in New York since the onset of the AIDS epidemic, according to the city’s Department of Health. But some of the owners report that business remains profitable despite mounting public pressure that the baths be closed.

”I’ve gone through my own particular moral crisis with this,” said Bruce Mailman, a homosexual and a Lower East Side real-estate entrepreneur who owns the St. Marks Baths, as well as the Saint, a homosexual discotheque. ”Am I profiting from other people’s misery? I don’t think so. I think I’m running an establishment that handles itself as well as it can under the circumstances.”

Mr. Mailman reports a 50 percent decline in attendance since 1982, while Jim Schwartz, who describes himself as a minority stockholder at the East Side Sauna, one of the city’s smaller bathhouses, said business had declined 25 percent, from nearly 2,000 customers a week to about 1,500.

Neither of the owners was willing to describe his profits in detail but both said that if they were not making money they would close their doors, as five other local bathhouses have done in recent years.

Forums for Education

With nearly 14,000 cases of AIDS reported nationwide, 6,700 in New York, homosexual men are increasingly calling for the closing of the baths, and many are criticizing homosexuals who profit from their operation.

Both Governor Cuomo and Mayor Koch are reconsidering their positions that such places, licensed by the city’s Health Department, are useful forums for educating homosexuals about the sexual practices that spread acquired immune deficiency syndrome, which is usually fatal.

”Because the circumstances have changed, because political opinion makes us bad guys, that doesn’t mean I’m doing something morally incorrect,” said Mr. Mailman. ”In my own terms, my behavior is correct and I’ll do what I believe as long as I can do it.”

At the St. Marks Baths, for the price of a locker or a room, patrons now get a free condom, enclosed in a package that bears the legend ”the contents of this envelope could save your life.”

Complies With Guidelines

To Mr. Mailman, this is evidence that he runs a ”beautifully maintained facility” that the city or state should inspect like a restaurant and only close for specific violations.

”I’m tired of the seamy notion of this,” he said during a recent tour of portions of the St. Marks Baths, at 6 St. Marks Place, off Third Avenue in Greenwich Village. ”It’s quite beautiful, expensive and well done.”

According to dozens of men familiar with bathhouses around the city, only the St. Marks and the East Side Sauna, at 227 East 56th Street, between Third and Second Avenues, are currently in compliance with guidelines drafted by a homosexual group called the Coalition for Sexual Responsibility that were recommended to Governor Cuomo by his AIDS Advisory Council as an alternative to closing the bathhouses. Both baths are owned by homosexuals, which is apparently the exception rather than the rule in a business where owners rarely make their identities known.

Michael Callen, a member of the advisory council and a bathhouse patron until he contracted AIDS, gives credit grudgingly to the bathhouses that comply with the guidelines. The guidelines include the distribution of free condoms and so-called safe-sex literature, the use of high levels of chlorine in swimming pools and the availability of lubricants and soap in individual packages or pump-top dispensers.

”They did it with a gun to their heads,” Mr. Callen said. ”They didn’t do it for the clients.”

A Safe-Sex Pledge

Mr. Mailman and Mr. Schwartz said in separate interviews that they might band together with other owners in legal action should the baths be ordered closed, but would not protest the closing of establishments that failed to abide by the guidelines. ”I’m not going to defend their right to be sloppy,” Mr. Mailman said.

At the St. Marks Baths, patrons also are expected to sign a pledge that they understand and will abide by the safe-sex guidelines, which are largely designed to eliminate the exchange of body fluids during anal intercourse or oral sex, two practices linked to the transmission of AIDS. Patrons and owners say that the vast majority of men are now practicing safe sex, but acknowledge that it is impossible to know for sure what goes on behind the closed doors of the private rooms.

In different ways, both Mr. Schwartz and Mr. Mailman argue that bathhouses are a necessary element of the homosexual lifestyle.

Mr. Schwartz said he viewed the East Side Sauna as ”so much less intimidating than gay bars” and thus a more sympathetic meeting place.

”We do not condone multiple-partner sex,” he said. ”If we found somebody being a real pig, we would ask him to leave, which we’ve done. From a business point of view, we make as much money from one person having sex with one person as one person having sex with 40.”

Baths Called Safer

Mr. Mailman, however, staunchly defends what many consider promiscuous behavior.

”Theoretically,” Mr. Mailman said, ”you could have sex safely with 100 people or unsafely with one. I keep hearing, ‘I’ll cut back; I’ll just go out every six months.’ What good is that if the one time you go out you have unsafe sex? You’re better off in the baths.”

As a rule, bathhouse patrons can choose between a locker, which costs about $7 for eight hours, or a private room, which costs several dollars more. At the East Side Sauna, which occupies parts of three floors in an office building, there is a steam room and sauna, television and video lounges and what is known as ”the group room.”

”How do you say this nicely?” said Mr. Schwartz. ”Basically, it’s an orgy room.”

Increased Lighting

At the St. Marks Baths there is a restaurant, a tiled swimming pool and hot tub, a steam room and sauna, and a room known as ”the dormitory,” where Mr. Mailman said he recently increased the lighting to discourage group sex.

The four-story building on St. Marks Place was a Turkish bath from 1906 until the late 1970’s, when the elderly of the Lower East Side briefly shared the facilities with a nighttime clientele of homosexuals. Those days are long forgotten by Mr. Mailman’s patrons, but an even earlier manifestation of the St. Marks Baths is preserved with a plaque on the building’s brick and aluminum facade.

”On this site,” the plaque reads, ”stood the winter residence from 1834-1836 and the last New York City home of the novelist James FenimoreCooper.”