ST. PETERSBURG — Popular Tampa Bay-based eatery Hamburger Mary's announced Tuesday it will be closing two more locations amid fallout from what its owner says is a false health department report.
The chain's flagship Centro Ybor location closed in November after the Florida Health Department of Hillsborough County said a worker tested positive for hepatitis A. The restaurant's owner said he has proof that never happened. Now, locations in St. Petersburg and Brandon are set to close at the end of March or sooner.
The Ybor restaurant was forced to shut down during a Department of Business and Professional Regulation investigation and owner Kurt King said negative media coverage proved a challenge that was "too much to overcome." He said he hoped closing the Ybor location would protect its other locations. But that, too, became too great a challenge, he said.
"Both locations have suffered sustained losses from the continuing effects of the slanderous assault on Mary's good name and that of her employees from the Hillsborough office of the State Health Department, which forced their sister locations in Ybor City to close in November," the chain announced in a Facebook post.
Since the Ybor location's closure, Douglas Holt, head of health department in Hillsborough County, has come under fire for what critics have called discriminatory actions. Many of Tampa's mayoral candidates even criticized the department's actions during a February candidate forum.
Officials from the health department said several other restaurants that had instances of hepatitis A, but said they weren't named because it wasn't a public health risk, despite Holt telling the Hillsborough County Commission that hepatitis A is an epidemic in Hillsborough County. Officials also said the health department only goes by facts and doesn't take a restaurant's demographic into account.
Last month, King said he believes his restaurant was purposefully targeted because of its LGBTQ themes and being a gay-owned restaurant.
The Hillsborough Health Department later announced no one had gotten sick at the restaurant and King said the worker never actually tested positive. King has shown lab tests indicating a negative result. While Holt said the positive test exists, but he said hasn't seen it. He refused to make the test public, citing a Florida statute that says hepatitis A information can only be made public if necessary for public health.
Holt came under further fire when he made comments in an interview critics described as homophobic.
"If you're going to fish, you need to go where the fish are," Holt said in the interview. "Half of (hepatitis A patients) report having drug use, the others would be a mixture of homelessness and particular sexual activities. The classic category is men having sex with men."
Holt later told county commissioners that of the 84 cases of hepatitis A in Hillsborough in 2018, hardly any involved gay men.
According to the restaurant's Facebook announcement, the restaurants have raised more than $2 million for charities through its drag queen-hosted bingo and other events. However, many groups have cancelled events and business has been suppressed past sustainability, the restaurant said.
"Charitable groups that used to line up to book their events months in advance are cancelling those events, even now, citing the widespread reporting in the media and social media of the Health Department's false accusations," the Facebook post said. "We have been hoping that the community that Mary has supported for years would stand by Mary in her time of need, and many have, but not enough to overcome the damage caused by Dr. Holt's prejudice."
Kurt King maintained in the Facebook post that no Hamburger Mary's employee has tested positive for hepatitis A.
Contact Daniel Figueroa IV at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @danuscripts.