TAMPA — It’s last call for late-night hookah lounges in Hillsborough County.
Commissioners unanimously approved a new ordinance Wednesday requiring the lounges to close at 3 a.m., mirroring the rule for bars and establishments serving alcohol.
“Certainly, not all of them — we don’t want to use the same brush on everyone — but you do have some bad actors out there who are serving alcohol or staying open all night or having a lot of bad activity going on,” said Commissioner Harry Cohen, who asked for the ordinance.
It comes after a string of violent incidents at or near hookah lounges, including a weekend in March when the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office and Tampa Police investigated separate shootings outside hookah lounges.
On March 21, a man was shot while sitting in his vehicle at 3:40 a.m. outside the Sky Hookah Lounge at 7748 Hillsborough Ave., where a party was being held inside. The suspect fled and the victim was treated for gunshot wounds at a hospital.
Less than 24 hours earlier, a fight broke out at about 6 a.m. inside the Flow Hookah Lounge on W. Waters Avenue. A patron retrieved a gun from his car and started shooting at the lounge security guards. They returned fire, striking the man who later died from his wounds.
In March 2020, a 27-year-old man was stabbed and critically injured at 4:20 a.m. inside the Last Hour Hookah Lounge at 7544 N. Dale Mabry Highway. At the time, the Sheriff’s Office said no one inside the lounge when the stabbing occurred was cooperating with authorities.
Since August 2020, deputies have responded to 76 so-called nuisance calls regarding disturbances, thefts, fights, assaults and other incidents at the lounge, said Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Donna Lusczynski.
She said the agency and Tampa Police had responded to 17 reported acts of violence involving firearms at hookah lounges since March 2019. Just four months ago, a judge sentenced Gary Omar Rivera Montanez to 55 years in prison for opening fire in 2017 on a group of people standing outside the Palace Lounge, a hookah bar on S. Howard Avenue in Tampa. The shots killed a 34-year-old man and wounded five others.
Hookahs are cylinder-like water pipes from which one or more persons can smoke tobacco in a group setting. The lounges can be similar to coffee shops as a spot attractive to people seeking quiet locations to work, read or socialize. Late night lounges, however, also offer disc jockeys, dance floors and a party atmosphere for those seeking recreation after the bars close.
It is the after-hours activities that commissioners want to curtail. While the shootings and stabbing made headlines, constituents have complained about noise, illegal alcohol sales and other illicit activities inside some of the lounges. Undercover detectives have witnessed illegal drug sales and exotic dancer performances, Luscynski said. She said the hookah lounges, in effect, had replaced the now-outlawed bottle clubs as after-hours gathering places.
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Attorney Chip Purcell, representing the West Broad Street Baptist Church, said the church property is near two hookah lounges. He described “a massive gathering, they park on our property, leaving trash, needles, all kinds of stuff after hours, alcohol bottles. Our surveillance cameras have shown prostitution, violence. Our church building has been hit by bullets after hours.”
The ordinance requires hookah lounges in unincorporated Hillsborough to close from 3 to 8 a.m. daily, prohibits nudity, bans people younger than 18 from entering, and reinforces Florida law that alcohol sales are illegal without a state license. The ordinance can be enforced by either deputies or county code enforcement officers. Penalties will range up to a $500 fine for each violation.