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Patrons irate after Internet café shutdown

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Published:   |   Updated: April 11, 2013 at 11:11 AM

BROOKSVILLE LuAnn Schlimpf, assistant manager at Megaplay Sweepstakes, said pandemonium broke out around 1:45 p.m. Wednesday when gaming machine vendors shut down the servers within minutes after Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill banning the facilities.

“It wasn’t a pretty sight,” Schlimpf said, noting that many of the 35 people inside had unredeemed winnings.

Management had to call the vendors and ask the machines be put back on long enough for customers to cash out before leaving the premises.

“I think it really stinks,” Schlimpf said. “It’s putting out a lot of people who have nothing to do but socialize. I have 80-90-year-old women who come in here by bus everyday.”

Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill Wednesday that bans up to 1,000 storefront operations across the state. The new law took effect immediately after Scott signed the bill.

Food vendor Don McKay said Scott’s action destroyed his livelihood and thousands of others in the industry. He vends exclusively for most of the Internet cafes in Hernando County.

“With one swipe of the pen, he put 50,000 people out of work,” McKay said.

McKay said unless Scott reverses his action, he will lobby to get him out of office.

Soon after word got out of the closings, people started driving by the storefront wondering if the place was still open.

Jim and Jan Burns were upset when they saw the closed sign.

“This gives us something to do, entertainment,” said Jim Burns, who estimates he raked in close to $1,200 the last year from the three Internet cafes he patronizes. “It’s too far to go to the horse track or the dog races.”

Jan Burns said it’s not only about the money.

“It’s just fun – something to do for the afternoon,” she said. “When you’re retired, you need something to do to keep going. I don’t know why all of them should be punished because of the (scandal).”

Florida legislators voted overwhelmingly last week to approve the ban. It was a quick response to a scandal that led to dozens of arrests and the lieutenant governor's resignation last month.

State officials say they will leave enforcement of the new law to local law enforcement officials.

The storefront operations targeted by the bill currently allow customers to play sweepstakes games that simulate slot machines. But critics contend the new law will also lead to the closures of senior arcades.

Megaplay manager Denise Worcester placed a sign on the door with Gov. Scott’s Tallahassee phone number and is telling all her customers to call and complain.

She hopes an injunction will be issued allowing her to reopen her facility near State Road 50 and Mariner Boulevard on Friday.

David Hamilton, operations manager for the Pasco-Hernando Workforce Board, said about 150 people are employed in the estimated 19 Internet cafes in Hernando County.

“That’s another 150 people who are not going to be eating out this week and are not adding to the economy with the money that they take in,” he said.

Wednesday’s shutdown would represent the largest mass layoff in Hernando County since the Southwest Florida Water Management District announced its layoffs, he said.

Put another way, it would increase the unemployment rate in Hernando County from the current 9.0 percent to 9.3 percent, he said.

“It is a large hit,” Hamilton said.

Information from TBO.com was used in this report.


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