Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 5, 2013

SALISBURY — A ban on video sweepstakes games has closed some local Internet cafes and prompted others to change in a bid to stay in business.
After enforcement of the ban started Wednesday, T&T Internet Cafe on Klumac Road shut down indefinitely. Two other businesses in Salisbury and Spencer posted signs saying they had closed Tuesday evening and would reopen in the next few days.
On Friday, both D&D Net on Jake Alexander Boulevard and South Main Street Internet had reopened with updated software.
Now, small pop-up notices let patrons know how much they have won at the start of a game, instead of at the end. At D&D Net, some of the computers have sticky notes covering the portion of the screen where those notices appear.
Customers who buy Internet time also can enter the sweepstakes and see their winnings without playing games.
The interactive displays look like slot machines, card games and other methods of gambling, but owners have said they’re just a fun way of revealing sweepstakes results.
The change in that reveal is a response to a 2010 law, which made it a misdemeanor “for any person to operate, or place into operation, an electronic machine or device to … conduct a sweepstakes through the use of an entertaining display, including the entry process or the reveal of a prize.”
Amusement machine and other companies sought to overturn that law, and the state Court of Appeals agreed that it was unconstitutional.
But the N.C. Supreme Court reversed that decision when it ruled in two cases last month, upholding the ban.
Some sweepstakes operators have said they plan to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. They asked the state court to delay enforcement of the law for a few months, but their request was denied.
Tabitha Harris, owner of T&T Internet Cafe on Klumac Road, said Thursday that her business is closed until she figures out what the state will allow.
“It’s a waiting game for me,” Harris said. “In the meantime, I’m out $20,000. I’ve been open three months.”
That includes tax money paid to the city, and she said she’s going to petition to get at least some of it back. Harris said she doesn’t have another form of income right now.
“I will never, ever go into the sweepstakes business again,” Harris said. “There’s so much headache with the state.”
Declaring the games as illegal, then legal, then illegal again is unfair to new business owners, she said.
Harris said she knows other places are changing their game systems to stay open, but she’s not sure whether they’ll just be banned next.
“If I change them over, is it going to be legal?” she said. “The state should send a letter out to all of the gaming systems, so that way, all of the game rooms know what to do.”
This isn’t the first time operators have made changes because of a gambling law. After the state outlawed video poker in 2007, sweepstakes games surfaced as a legal alternative.
Capt. John Sifford with the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office said the issue of what is legal or illegal is still in dispute, and District Attorney Brandy Cook is still reviewing the 2010 law and court ruling.
“It is our understanding at present that these types of cafes are in violation of the law,” he wrote in an email to the Post, “although this industry has lawyers and software companies that are working diligently to find either loopholes in the law, or alternative ways, through computer software manipulation, to ‘legalize’ their business.”
The local district attorney’s office has said it will decide whether criminal charges are warranted on a case-by-case basis, according to a message sent to the sheriff’s office. Investigating officers are asked to contact an assistant district attorney before charging anyone in these cases.

Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.