1. Opinion

Sanctuary for seniors or scourge of society?

The outlaws talk in whispers. They sit in small groups of two or three, and sometimes lean over to check each other's work. They appear relaxed. Perhaps arthritic.

This is it? This is the scourge of our streets? A bunch of seniors playing video games on a Wednesday afternoon in an Internet sweepstakes cafe?

Is this what happens when you get strung out on bingo?

In case you haven't been following the story, these tiny storefronts with their swivel chairs and computer screens have been infiltrated by undercover cops, raided by law enforcement and debated in County Commission meetings and the state Legislature.

They also smell a bit like your Aunt Gert's house.

Now, just to be clear, these places are probably illegal. There have been a number of lawsuits filed in recent months that question whether police have a right to shut them down.

Basically, they are a sneaky way to circumvent gambling laws. So if you're inclined to lump slot machines among society's ills, then round up these lawbreakers and shoo them into the streets. Just go easy on the billy clubs.

"The place is packed almost every night with senior citizens. Senior citizens who are bored to death," said Henry Czyznik, 80, of Dunedin, who plays at least two or three times a week. "These are people whose kids live out of state or are widowed and have nothing to do. They spend their 20 bucks, and it gives them a chance to get out of the house and meet people."

The appeal to seniors is, ironically, one of the arguments politicians have used against these businesses. They say they prey on the poor and the elderly, and that's not entirely inaccurate.

Of course, the argument would sound more pure if the state wasn't enticing Floridians into spending an estimated $4.26 billion on its own lottery business.

Because, essentially, that's what these cafes emulate. You buy either Internet time or a phone card, and you are given promotional credits along with your purchase.

You can immediately turn those credits back in to see if you won anything, or use those credits to play Vegas-style games on the computers.

Technically, that promotional code you are given is supposed to predetermine whether you will be a winner or loser even before you begin playing on the computer, but the reality is you can choose whether to walk away while you're up or down.

"For my $20, I can sit and play Keno for two hours," Czyznik said. "It's a wonderful hangout for the seniors. We can't go to bars anymore, and the language in the movie theaters is way over our heads. This place, for us, is like a neighborhood clique."

Should the state be regulating these places? Absolutely.

They should be monitored to make sure the games aren't rigged too heavily in the house's favor; they should be licensed to ensure they follow certain zoning laws; and they should be taxed to make sure the state gets its fair share of the profits.

And a bill recently passed by a state Senate committee made just those type of recommendations.

But to act as if these places are dens of criminal activity that warrant police manpower is just plain silly.

Not to mention highly hypo­critical.

John Romano can be reached at