Health Department defends handling of Hepatitis A investigation

In a room full of Hamburger Mary's supporters, The Hillsborough Health Department head wanted to clear the air about the investigation that lead to the temporary closure of Ybor restaurant.

“My decision is yes or no, was there a risk to the public,” said Dr. Doug Holt.

Back in October, a restaurant employee tested positive for Hepatitis A. Shortly after, health inspectors found 26 health violations.

The Department of Businesses and Professional Regulation shut them down.

“We have no evidence that the employee was infected at the restaurant, that there was anyone who was infected at the restaurant or anybody else," Holt said. "I had to deal with probability of risk.”

Dr. Holt mentioned the top risk factors, citing a large increase in cases in Tampa over the last year. Graphics presented in the chamber showed in 2017, there were 11 reported cases of Hepatitis A. In 2018, there were 84.

“The risk factors include drug use, recently incarcerated, and homelessness. Combined to about 90 percent. The fourth is men who have sex with men," Holt said.

Commissioner Mariella Smith likened treatment of the restaurant after the Hepatitis A scare to LGBT persecution during the AIDS epidemic from decades ago. “We have to be especially careful, not to portray the disease of hepatitis in the same way.”

Smith criticized Holt for a comment made to another news outlet about the department checking for Hep A having to go “fish where the fish are.”

“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.

Dr. Holt refuted that claim.

“Mine and my staff do not go in making any judgements about anything other than what we’re asked to look at," Holt said. "When we are there, we do the same thing with all. We look for what we know is associated with an increased risk. If we find it, we act.”

The restaurant was allowed to reopen after the closure. But owner Kurt King decided to close the restaurant permanently, saying the challenge was "too much to overcome."

After the meeting, Adam Baker, a member of the LGBT community who worked as a server at Hamburger Mary's said, it's been hard to find work.

"Other places aren't going to come out and say it, that they're discriminating against you, but when they see you've worked there and know about all of the instances that have been going on, they're leery of hiring you," Baker said.