SPRING HILL — It's either harmless fun for people, mostly bored senior citizens, or a clever ploy to evade Florida's anti-gambling laws.
However you want to interpret it, this much is clear: The games are over in Hernando County, at least for the time being.
In recent years, a group called Affiliates of Allied Veterans of the World has opened dozens of AVA game rooms or Internet cafes around Florida, including numerous ones in strip shopping centers in Hernando County.
At these locations, players buy phone cards or Internet time, which also enters them into the Allied Veterans Sweepstakes. They put their card into a computer terminal and choose from a variety of slot machine-style games that they play to see whether they are sweepstakes winners.
Players can get cash prizes that run into the thousands of dollars; they can also add money to their cards and continue playing.
Or, at least, they were able to until the AVA sites in Hernando County abruptly shut down over the past two weeks.
Two handwritten signs on the locked doors at AVA center No. 52 in the Forest Oaks Plaza at U.S. 19 and Forest Oaks Boulevard give no reasons for the closure but say the site "will reopen in 2-3 weeks.''
Customers are directed to AVA sites in Bradenton and Sarasota, and the sign says they can get $5 toward gas "if you ask for Melissa.''
A phone number on the note goes to a voice mailbox, which is full and not accepting any more messages. A phone number at another AVA site, No. 45 on U.S. 19, rings continuously.
Voice mail and e-mail messages left with a public relations representative for Allied Veterans were not returned on Friday, nor was a message left with Kelly Mathis, a Jacksonville attorney who has represented Allied Veterans in court cases in Florida.
Former patrons who have called the St. Petersburg Times assumed that Hernando County law enforcement is behind the closings, as was the case in 2007 when similar places were raided and accused of operating as illegal gambling dens.
But neither the Hernando County Sheriff's Office nor the state attorney's office says it is involved in the Hernando AVA sites' closings.
Mark Simpson, the Ocala-based assistant state attorney who oversees such cases, said, "If they shut down, they did so on their own.''
He did, however, offer a theory.
Sheriff's offices in Sumter and Marion counties have raided AVA sites in recent weeks, he said, and the Hernando operators may be wary of being targeted next.
"They're a close-knit group,'' Simpson said. "If we execute a search warrant, the owners in Hernando will know about it. Sooner or later, they figure, the bus will stop here.''
Both of those counties, like Hernando, are in the 5th Judicial Circuit, where State Attorney Brad King has taken a hard line on gambling operations.
"The law is the same across the state, but individual law enforcement agencies and state attorney's offices make their priorities something different,'' he said. "Here, we have a state attorney who says you're not going to do it in this circuit.''
The AVA centers, however, have been operating in the open for several years without any interference from law enforcement. What has changed?
Simpson explained that his office has passed complaints about the gaming rooms to the Marion County Sheriff's Office for some time, but because of limited resources and other constraints, "their priorities were different at the time.''
The proliferation of the sites has gotten too big to ignore, Simpson said.
"It's like a cancer,'' he said. "They move into an area and test the waters, then they crop up everywhere. In Marion County, one has led to 17. So, you got to clean house, and surgery is the best way to get rid of it.''
Several customers of the AVA centers who contacted the Times but declined to be named complained about what they view as unnecessary legal interference into simple entertainment.
Simpson is not swayed.
"The entertainment argument cuts zero ice with me," he said. "It's illegal. If you want to gamble, get your butt on a cruise ship or go to the Hard Rock Casino.''