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The Health Department holds off on naming the focus of a food illness investigation

BROOKSVILLE — News of a gastrointestinal illness that may have stricken dozens of people who visited a Spring Hill restaurant last week has traveled faster than the sickness itself.

On Thursday, the day the St. Petersburg Times reported on a Hernando County Health Department investigation into the illness, the agency was flooded with phone calls, more than 100 before lunchtime.

The newspaper fielded nearly two dozen calls as well. Virtually every caller was after the same information: the name of the restaurant.

Because the matter is still under investigation, Health Department spokeswoman Ann-Gayl Ellis has declined to identify the restaurant. She acknowledged that all of the complaints her agency has received have concerned the same establishment.

The mystery has fueled rampant speculation in the community about the name of the restaurant, which has left numerous restaurants feeling the economic fallout from wary diners.

"People talk," said Ellis. "But nothing has changed. We're still working on getting the answers."

About 45 people, she said, have filed incident reports, which has led the agency to launch a joint investigation with the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which licenses Florida restaurants.

The complaints all echo the same symptoms: Violent vomiting, diarrhea, weakness and fatigue. The investigation is focusing on a possible contamination by a food-borne norovirus, which can be transferred by food, water and from person to person.

On Thursday, more than a dozen callers contacted the Times to say they had gotten sick after eating at Kally K's Steakery & Fishery on U.S. 19 in Spring Hill sometime between March 6 and March 11. Nearly all said they suffered from the same symptoms described by the health department.

Kally K's manager Christina Malo, however, adamantly dismissed those accusations.

"Nothing (related to the illness) has come from here,'' Malo insisted.

Ellis said investigators have visited the restaurant named by the complainants and found only minimal violations. Nothing reached the level at which the restaurant would be shut down.

Malo acknowledged that officials visited Kally K's on Monday but she said that was a routine inspection that the restaurant receives every two to three months. Inspectors checked food temperatures, refrigeration units and ovens, food preparation stations and other areas, she said.

And the restaurant was not cited for any major violations, Malo pointed out.

She added that no one has called Kally K's to complain about getting ill after eating there, and that more than 3,300 customers — and all of her employees — have dined at the restaurant since last week without incident.

"It's all hearsay as far as I'm concerned," Malo said.

Meanwhile, speculation about the source of the sickness has had serious effects on other Spring Hill restaurants.

C.P. Damon, the owner of Nellie's Restaurant on U.S. 19 in Spring Hill, fumed as he looked out on a near-deserted dining room Thursday. Last year, he said, the lunch crowd on St. Patrick's Day was robust — his receipts showed 58 people ate between 1 and 2 p.m.

On Thursday, the total was seven diners.

"Our business is off more than 50 percent for the day,'' Damon said.

The kitchen was awash in corned beef and cabbage, ready for the expected holiday crowd, food that Damon said likely will go to waste. By 3 p.m., Damon said, he sent two cooks and other workers home.

Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or lneill@sptimes.com. Times staff writer Greg Hamilton contributed to this report.

The Health Department holds off on naming the focus of a food illness investigation 03/17/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 17, 2011 8:22pm]
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