As Florida's Legislature debates whether to restrict the mushrooming number of Internet sweepstakes cafes across the state, Pinellas County is also taking up the question.
On Tuesday, the County Commission is scheduled to discuss several options for regulating the cafes, which have sprung up around the county. Often packed with senior citizens who stay for hours, playing computerized games that imitate slot machines, the cafes operate in a legal gray area. Many sell patrons cards giving them Internet access, and owners argue they are legitimate businesses; counties and cities often see them as mini casinos that prey on the elderly.
Earlier this week, Tampa's City Council voted to place a moratorium on the cafes, barring any new businesses with sweepstakes computers from opening in the city. Tampa has 13 Internet cafes already in operation, and those can remain, though the council placed new rules on them, including a prohibition on buying more sweepstakes machines or posting signs in their windows advertising gambling.
Clearwater also voted earlier this week to ban more Internet cafes from opening. With 12 in existence, Clearwater has more sweepstakes businesses than any other city in Pinellas.
Pinellas County Attorney Jim Bennett is recommending that the commission follow Tampa and Clearwater in passing a moratorium.
"My opinion is that the moratorium is the best option, as it will allow us to control the influx of new Internet cafes while allowing the time to determine the outcome of 2013 Legislative session," he wrote in a memo to the commissioners.
The commission could pass a complete ban, Bennett said, prohibiting any business "defined as an Internet cafe or otherwise designated as a house of gambling," but that could pose legal risks for the county if cafe owners choose to sue.
In 2011, the Hillsborough County Commission passed an ordinance banning the use of the sweepstakes machines. It quickly drew a legal challenge from four cafes, but in November of last year, a lawyer for the businesses said they had closed up shop and would drop their suit.
Pinellas could also decide to place more restrictions on the cafes, Bennett wrote, but this would create another problem.
Regulation "creates the appearance of approval by the county and tacitly lends a level of legitimacy to the operation of these enterprises." Any sign of approval from the county could make it harder to eventually shutter those businesses, he wrote.
Currently, there are several bills circulating in the Legislature that would limit the cafes. One, which has no Senate companion, would ban them outright. Another would hand counties and cities the power to regulate and prohibit the cafes. And a third would place a two-year moratorium on any new cafes. None has been heard in committee.