TAMPA — The now-shuttered Hamburger Mary’s Bar and Grill is suing a top county health official, saying he wrongly accused an employee of its former Ybor City location of having Hepatitis A, leading to the local restaurant chain’s demise.
The suit claims Douglas Holt, director of the Hillsborough County office of the Florida Department of Health, publicized a false diagnosis as a form of discrimination against the restaurant because of its ties to the LGBTQ community.
According to the lawsuit filed last week, the health department contacted Hamburger Mary’s on Oct. 23, 2018 after it was told an unnamed employee was diagnosed with Hepatitis A. The health department asked to visit the restaurant to provide vaccinations and training for employees. The suit says co-owner Kurt King agreed to the visit.
But the affected employee, called “John Doe” in the lawsuit, was never actually diagnosed with Hepatitis A, the lawsuit says. Doe was tested for Hepatitis A, B and C two days before the department contacted the restaurant. The tests were “nonreactive for all three. King, the lawsuit says, informed the inspector of this during the visit, but the department still issued a news release indicating there was a positive diagnosis.
In an email, health department spokesman Kevin Watler said the health department “cannot comment on pending litigation.”
The hamburger chain was well-known for its strong ties to the LGBTQ community. King is gay, and the “overwhelming majority” of the Ybor City location’s employees were LGBTQ, the lawsuit says. The chain regularly held events such as Drag Queen Bingo.
According to the lawsuit, this affiliation caused it to be treated differently than other restaurants. While the Hillsborough County health department issued a press release about Hamburger Mary’s case, it did not release the names of other restaurants that had employees with Hepatitis A diagnoses, the lawsuit says.
Though specific restaurants were not named, Tampa’s Ulele had an employee who was diagnosed with Hepatitis A four months later in February, and the department was notified. There is currently is no news release on the health department’s site mentioning Ulele, but there is an April release for Sandpiper Grille related to Hepatitis A.
The lawsuit also said Holt’s comments to the news media at the time indicated an anti-LGBTQ bias.
“Half of (Hepatitis A patients) report having drug use. The others would be a mixture of homelessness and particular sexual activities," Holt told ABC Action News. "The classic category is men having sex with men.”
Hamburger Mary’s is seeking damages, legal costs, a jury trial and declaration that Holt’s actions violated the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law.