HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — A former franchise owner of popular gay-themed burger restaurants is suing the Florida Department of Health for discrimination in a case involving a local hepatitis A scare.
Kurt King, who owned Hamburger Mary’s Restaurant Bar and Grille in Ybor City, alleges the health department and Dr. Douglas Holt – Hillsborough County’s public health boss – “treat homosexual persons differently as demonstrated by the false reporting of Hepatitis A,” according to the lawsuit.
“We were definitely targeted for just being LGBTQ,” King told Anchor Wendy Ryan shortly after his lawyer electronically filed the lawsuit in Hillsborough County Monday afternoon.
The civil lawsuit references a public warning issued by the Hillsborough County Health Department in October 2018 about a Hamburger Mary’s worker who tested positive for hepatitis A.
But King has accused the agency of false reporting. He previously said lab test results his employee sent him show the hepatitis A test was not positive and shared those test results with Anchor Wendy Ryan during a sit-down interview that aired on ABC Action News in early 2019.
A Dirty Dining investigation earlier this year uncovered the Hillsborough County Health Department never told the public about four other local restaurants with workers who tested positive for hepatitis A during the same time period.
- Oct. 2018: Hamburger Mary's worker tests positive for Hepatitis A; customers urged to get vaccinated
- Jan. 2019: Hamburger Mary's owner claims health department targeted his restaurant for being gay
- Everything you need to know about hepatitis A in the Tampa Bay area
At the time, Dr. Holt told ABC Action News the public had no right to know the names or locations of those other restaurants and insisted hepatitis A cases were more prominent among gay men.
King’s attorney, Gil Sanchez, references that ABC Action News interview in the lawsuit, stating, “Dr. Holt made statements to ABC Action News Wendy Ryan that, ‘If you’re going to fish, you have to go where the fish are.’ and that ‘…the classic category is men having sex with men.’”
Sanchez told ABC Action News, “That statement is, in our opinion, direct evidence of discrimination and really at the heart of proving that in fact Dr. Holt utilizing his position of power was discriminating against the company of Hamburger Mary’s.”
Hepatitis A is a food-borne illness that spreads when an infected person does not wash their hands properly after going to the bathroom and then touches food or other objects. Drug users and people experiencing homelessness are the most at risk, according to the CDC.
In the same interview, Dr. Holt also told Anchor Wendy Ryan he had not personally seen the positive hepatitis A test for the Hamburger Mary’s worker but insisted the test results were correct.
King previously owned Hamburger Mary’s restaurants in Ybor City, Brandon and St. Petersburg but closed all three locations by February 2019.
King blamed a sharp decline in business after the health department’s announcement, according to his lawsuit.
ABC Action News reached out to the health department and Dr. Holt for comment on the lawsuit Monday night but have yet to hear back.
Hepatitis A has become an epidemic in the Tampa Bay area and the state with more than 2,000 confirmed cases in Florida since January 2018.
The hepatitis A virus is spread when a person unknowingly ingests the virus from objects, food or drinks that have been contaminated with small undetected amounts of stool from an infected person.
Pinellas County Health Department is offering hepatitis A vaccines to the public at no cost at several vaccine centers. For more information on where you can get these free vaccines in Pinellas County, you can click here. Other Florida counties, including Hillsborough, also provide free or discounted hepatitis A vaccines. You can click here for more information.
For more information on hepatitis A and guidelines from the federal government, visit: www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hav/index.htm.
A spokesperson for the Hillsborough County Health Department emailed the following statement to ABC Action News: "I'm writing on behalf of Dr. Holt. He said, 'I cannot comment on pending litigation.'"