Commission bans internet cafe games


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Posted February 2, 2021 | By Carlos Medina, Ocala Gazette

Marion County Commissioners effectively outlawed internet cafes in the county after they voted in favor of an ordinance banning simulated gambling devices on Tuesday.

The commission voted 5-0 in favor of the ordinance. The decision will ban the use of the machines, allowing the Marion County Sheriff’s Office to enforce the ban. The ordinance was brought to the commission by the sheriff’s office, which argued cafes were hotbeds for criminal activity, including armed robbery.

During Tuesday’s public hearing, proponents of the game rooms asked commissioners to consider stronger regulations on the establishments rather than a ban.

But commissioners signaled they had no appetite for creating and staffing local game room regulations. Instead, they deferred to the sheriff’s concerns over public safety.

In arguing for the ban, Tim McCourt, the sheriff’s office’s attorney, said internet cafes deal in large sums of cash, and security is often lax or non-existent, making them targets for armed robberies.

McCourt said a recent armed robbery at one location included the gunman pointing a weapon at a pregnant woman and a 9-year-old girl. It was the fourth internet cafe robbery since December.

Commission Chairman Jeff Gold argued they were not banning the cafes.

“We are not shutting these businesses down. We’re simply prohibiting the simulated gaming devices. You can continue having your social gathering spot, internet access, your coffee, your doughnut, your friendship gatherings,” Gold said.

But Kelly Mathis, a Jacksonville attorney representing a coalition of game room owners, felt that argument was disingenuous.

“The reason people go to these game rooms are the video games for adults. Saying you’re not closing the businesses is like telling a pizza restaurant, ‘You can stay in business, but you can’t sell pizza,’” Mathis said. “What you’re trying to do is take the security as a pretext for closing down the lawful activity of these game rooms without ever once giving regulation a chance.”

The games are not considered gambling devices under state law because they require skill rather than chance. That is why they can operate without adhering to strictly regulated state gaming laws.

McCourt said at least 37 of the cafes currently operate in the county. The ordinance would ban the machines in unincorporated Marion County. The ordinance would not cover Ocala, Belleview, Dunnellon, McIntosh or Reddick.

The ban passed on Tuesday is similar to actions taken by Nassau and Duval counties. Those ordinances held up to immediate challenges for injunctions.

“We’re confident it will stand a constitutional challenge,” McCourt said.

Ocala does not have an ordinance covering internet cafes. Dunnellon bans them, and Belleview strictly regulates them.

The proposed ordinance includes fines and possible jail time for violators. The ban would not apply to pari-mutuel wagering sites or devices not used in a commercial operation.

Once the ordinance goes into effect, cafe managers would face arrest if five or more of the simulated gambling games are in the facility. Otherwise, a citation will be issued, including a fine of $250 per machine. If the facility remains in operation after citations are issued, the manager can face arrest.

McCourt said he plans to have sheriff’s personnel visit each of the cafes and explain the new ordinance. The rules go into effect after they are filed with the Florida Secretary of State. That takes about 10 days.