TAMPA — A six-month halt on new Internet sweepstakes cafes inside Tampa city limits won initial approval Thursday from the City Council.
Officially known as a temporary abatement, the moratorium is meant to give the city time to enact its own ordinance regulating the cafes. Those businesses allow customers to participate in sweepstakes contests. But instead of getting scratch-off tickets to find out their winnings, they use computers that often simulate the spinning reels of a slot machine.
If passed in a second vote on Oct. 18, the six-month abatement will not affect Tampa's existing Internet cafes. The city has four that are open, with a fifth under construction, according to business tax records.
"If you're operating today, and you met code at the time you were operating, this would not impact you," senior assistant city attorney Julia Mandell told the council. Also exempt would be the Seminole Hard Rock Casino, Tampa Bay Downs, the Tampa Greyhound track, authorized bingo games and arcades properly operated under state law.
Council member Yvonne Yolie Capin brought up the idea of regulating cafes in March. On Sept. 20, the council voted to look into passing such an ordinance.
As a model, the city is expected to look to the city of Jacksonville, which limits the number of permits it will issue for Internet cafes, bases its permit fees on the number of machines in the cafes, requires security cameras and guards, and bans alcohol and minors from the cafes.
Tampa council members also have talked about requiring Internet cafes to have a minimum size and a minimum number of machines. Capin has said she wants to avoid a proliferation of sweepstakes cafes where coffee shops set up a machine or two in a back room.
The council is scheduled to discuss its options Nov. 29.
So far, city officials are taking a different path than did Hillsborough County.
In December, county commissioners voted to prohibit "simulated gambling devices." Seminole County, Orange County, and the cities of Winter Garden and Longwood have adopted similar bans.
Less than two weeks later, four sweepstakes companies sued the county in federal court. The suit, which is pending, claims Hillsborough's ban violates the cafes' First Amendment rights of free speech, unlawfully interferes with commerce and deprives them of equal protection and due process of law.
The ordinance establishing Tampa's temporary abatement notes that state law does not clearly define whether simulated gambling devices are, in fact, slot machines regulated by the state.
Council Chairman Charlie Miranda voted yes Thursday, but said he would vote no next month unless the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation is brought into the discussion.
"We're getting into an area that's really state-driven," he said.
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403.