SPRING HILL — Two days after the Hernando County Health Department issued an alert that people had gotten sick after eating at an unidentified restaurant on U.S. 19 in Spring Hill, independent restaurant owners along the busy corridor began to feel the ripple effects of the announcement.
Nadia Gauthier, manager of The Restaurant, said Thursday that business dropped by nearly half of what she was expecting as word quickly spread through the community.
"People were definitely talking about it," Gauthier said from the eatery at 3438 Commercial Way. "It seemed like they were scared to eat in a restaurant."
In the following days, concerned diners flooded the Health Department and local media with calls. Most demanded the name of the suspect eatery, noting that by not identifying the place, it painted all Spring Hill restaurants with unfair suspicion.
C.P. Damon, owner of Nellie's Restaurant in Weeki Wachee, said he saw a 50 percent decline in business.
"It hurt us really bad," Damon said. "Our customers stopped coming because they thought they were going to get sick eating here."
Perhaps his worst day was St. Patrick's Day, when his staff had prepared corned beef and cabbage for what he expected would be a robust holiday crowd. By 3 p.m., Damon decided to send two cooks and other workers home.
Diners have returned to their restaurants, Gauthier and Damon noted on Thursday.
On Wednesday, the Health Department confirmed that more than 100 people had been stricken with a stomach illness after dining at or coming in contact with someone who dined at Kally K's Steakery & Fishery, 3383 Commercial Way, Spring Hill.
But when the agency released its original alert on March 15, it declined to name the restaurant, citing its ongoing joint investigation with the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
Damon thought that was bad policy.
"It became a guessing game that was based on a lot of rumors," Damon said. "No one wants to eat where they think they're going to get sick. And with no way of knowing, they just stopped coming."
In a statement, Health Department spokeswoman Ann-Gayl Ellis defended the agency on Thursday, saying, "In any event of this type, until the health department has confirmed clinical results that provide a credible link to the source, it will not issue specific information on the restaurant in question."
Kally K's manager Christina Malo said her restaurant has suffered as well, and laments that so many people were affected by the norovirus, which is a leading cause of gastroenteritis.
"We've been here for 13 years and have never had anything that would bring us any major complaints," Malo said. "We care about our customers. Many of them are like family.''
According to the health department, the norovirus outbreak occurred between March 6 and 11. Among the positive results found in a sampling of customers, one employee of the restaurant also tested positive for the virus.
Malo said the employee has not returned to work.
An inspection of the restaurant on March 14 yielded two violations, one of which was listed as critical: An inspector noted that an employee engaged in food preparation had not washed his or her hands prior to handling food and equipment or when changing gloves.
The second violation dealt with cleaned and sanitized equipment, utensils, linens or other items that were not properly stored, according to the DBPR website.
Malo said Thursday that Kally K's is complying with the Health Department's recommendations, and that she is not aware of any additional complaints of illness filed since March 11.
The incident has had a devastating effect on the business, Malo said. She has had to lay off some workers and has cut hours for others.
"This has hurt us," she said. "If things ever get back to normal it will probably be a long time."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.