TAMPA — No one actually got sick at Hamburger Mary's Bar and Grill in Ybor City, county health officials say, which they temporarily shut down in November due to a hepatitis A scare.
But the owner, staff, patrons and drag queens of the beloved restaurant say the emotional and financial damage has already taken its toll. The chain's flagship restaurant on E Seventh Avenue will not reopen.
One by one, they addressed the Hillsborough County Commission on Thursday to complain about the way the Florida Department of Health's Hillsborough County Director, Dr. Douglas Holt, handled the Oct. 24 news that a restaurant worker had tested positive for hepatitis A.
Holt was on hand to deliver a report on an "epidemic" of hepatitis A patients in counties along the Interstate 4 corridor. But Hamburger Mary's owner Kurt King said it was Holt's televised interviews about his restaurant that caused it to fail after nine years in Ybor City. He still has locations in Brandon, Clearwater and St. Petersburg, however.
"He's destroyed my business; he's destroyed me," King said. "A lot of our employees lost their houses, they lost their cars; they lost everything. I've lost everything."
Emotions ran high as county commissioners questioned Holt about the way he handled the public health matter. He told Commissioner Les Miller that he would "do anything ... to help Hamburger Mary's reopen "post haste."
The comments that sparked the most concern were those Holt made to WFTS-Ch. 28, which his critics called discriminatory, misleading and homophobic.
"If you're going to fish, you need to go where the fish are," Holt said in the interview. "Half of (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."
The county said there were 11 cases of hepatitis A in Hillsborough in 2017. That increased to 84 in 2018, a jump of 664 percent.
In his report to commissioners, Holt said the comments were taken out of context. While gay men are at risk of the disease, the doctor said, hardly any of the Hillsborough patients who tested positive for hepatitis A were of that demographic.
Instead, the epidemic actually impacted white, non-Hispanic men ages 30 to 50, the doctor said. He ran down the three risk factors: "Drug use, recently incarcerated and homelessness." Those factors were found in about 90 percent of reported cases, the doctor said.
"When you speak for 45 minutes I don't know why the media does what they do," Holt said. "My comments were to what am I doing about it, how am I communicating, how am I treating it."
He added: "People who know me I have been an infectious disease physician for 35 years, I've taken care of patients when we didn't have AZT (a medication to treat HIV.)"
The doctor also vowed to rebuild his department's relationship with the LGBTQ community: "We need their trust and I'm doing my best to repair the damage and to regain that trust."
But the publicity and fallout from the hepatitis A scare were too much for the restaurant to bear, said Sonia Torres, who performs as "Esme Russell" to help support her aging parents. After the announcement, crowds dwindled from 200 to just 10 or so patrons, she told commissioners. The restaurant's closure slashed 70 percent of her family income.
"Being an entertainer is one of my only forms of making money," she said. "I don't want to sell drugs. I don't want to be on the street. I want to pay my bills respectfully and live an honorable and decent life."
Commissioner Mariella Smith said the comments were reminiscent of the "fear mongering" made against the LGBTQ community during the AIDS epidemic. She warned that the way the hepatitis A scare was handled threatened to reopen old wounds.
"Coming from the department of health it seems to make an official announcement that LGBT-owned businesses are suspect as likely carriers of this contagious disease," Smith said. "We have to be mindful of our own local context as well and we have a very recent history of the pendulum swinging back and forth between granting civil rights to LGBT people and then taking those rights away ... "
She told the commission they must "keep moving forward and keep a watchful eye out for any signs of officials calling out LGBT people and their businesses publicly." Smith called that "dangerous in ways that could divide our community with fear and discrimination."
King cited his closed restaurant's contributions to the community over the past two decades, such as donating an estimated $2.1 million to charitable organizations, sponsoring the Gasparilla Softball Classic and a gay World Series tourney. Now he said he is pondering taking legal action against health officials.
"I've done a lot for this community," he said. "I wish the health department would have stood with me and helped me through this instead of what they've done to me."