Columbia County Plans For August 2021 Ban On Internet Cafes

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Columbia County this month became the latest local government in north central Florida to ban internet cafes due to safety concerns.

Internet cafes are essentially adult arcades where games are played on simulated gambling devices. These games require the use of skill and the element of chance such as slot machines.

State Attorney for the 3rd Circuit John Durrett said some of the machines he has encountered are illegal.

“There is a manipulation of the code in the machines to where there’s an inherent amount of chance within the game for which someone is going to be paying out money and taking in money in order to play the game. They’re going to be manipulating it in such a fashion as to where the house is always going to win,” Durrett said.

In March, the Columbia County Commission placed a temporary moratorium on Internet cafes, pausing any new establishments from opening.

According to the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, there were only three internet cafes in the county in 2019. Two years later, there are over 30.

Columbia County Commissioner Toby Witt called it an explosion of the establishments.

“We probably had a tolerance for them when there was maybe 5 in the county, but now we’re pushing 50. I think they just exceeded the public’s tolerance for them. We work for the public, so we are listening to the public outcry,” Witt said, “ I don’t even think they’re legal to start with.”

County Attorney Joel Foreman said because surrounding counties started banning internet cafes, these businesses started to relocate to other areas — such as Columbia County.

“Marion County, Duval County and Nassau County have all said they are just going to prohibit these machines because they think the probability that they’re being used illegally is so high. Because of public safety issues in Duvall, Nassau and Marion counties, they have withstood challenge in federal court,” Foreman said.

During the April 15 Columbia County Commission meeting, the board discussed an ordinance to ban internet cafes.

Earlier this year, a man was kicked out of the “Q-Time 777” casino. He came back to the casino with a gun and opened fire. The casino’s security guard shot and killed the man, according to Columbia County Sheriff Mark Hunter.

Hunter said since 2019 there have been 1,260 calls for service at the establishments. These reported incidents among internet cafes include 1 homicide, 1 battery, 5 burglaries and 18 incidents involving robbery, theft, or fraud.

“In 2019, we had 228 calls. In 2020, we had 645 calls, and in 2021 we’ve already had 387 calls,” he said, recounting the rising strain the cafes have put on local law enforcement.

Heather Kirby lives in Lake City and said an internet cafe is in the process of opening near her home and she does not feel comfortable.

“Please stop these internet cafes from coming near our homes. A bullet can travel from one home to another. If there’s a robbery, I could be innocently killed sitting in my recliner watching a TV,” Kirby said.

Sandra Willoughby, manager of The Wild Cherry Internet Cafe, spoke out to the commission about her concerns for her employees.

“I do know that we employ a lot of people in these internet cafes. I have several mothers that are single, divorced and have three or four children,” she said. “This is their only income.”

With the pandemic and difficulties receiving unemployment benefits, Foreman said he would like the commission to not take immediate action.

“It’s hard to tell a man you’ve got 60 days to find another job. I want to make sure they have ample time to find jobs and get themselves back on their feet,” Foreman said.

The commission agreed and effectively gave the businesses and their employees four months to find new work.

The ordinance that commissioners passed bans commercial uses of simulated gambling devices in unincorporated areas — in other words, everywhere outside Lake City and Fort White.

It goes into effect Aug. 13.

About Erica Shebovsky

Erica is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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