TAMPA, Fla. — Supporters rallied behind the owner of the now-closed Hamburger Mary’s in Ybor City, packing the Hillsborough County Commissioner chambers Thursday morning and accusing the health department of inciting a fake Hepatitis A scare at the restaurant because it is owned by a gay man.
Owner Kurt King, who previously told I-Team Reporter Wendy Ryan his employee tested "non-reactive" or negative for Hepatitis A and showed ABC Action News a copy of the lab test results for that employee to prove it, said he believes his business was targeted by the Hillsborough County Health Department because he is gay.
And many from the LGBT community spoke out in support of him and his business at Thursday's meeting.
"Seventy percent of my income I lost because of the closing of Hamburger Mary's," Sonya Torrez, a former employee, told commissioners.
Adam Baker also spoke at the meeting, telling commissioners, "It's hard to find a job because when people see that you worked at Hamburger Mary's and see the news and know everything that happened, I feel like they don't want to hire you."
The heated meeting comes after a special Dirty Dining investigation uncovered five Hillsborough County restaurants with workers who tested positive for Hepatitis A. But the only restaurant the county health department publicly named was Hamburger Mary's, which is gay-owned.
In an earlier interview with I-Team Reporter Wendy Ryan, Dr. Douglas Holt, head of the health department, singled out gay men as at high risk for contracting Hepatitis A.
"If you're going to fish, you need to go where the fish are," told ABC Action News in that interview. "Half of them 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."
But during Thursday's meeting with commissioners, Holt never mentioned gay men as among those in high-risk categories for contracting Hepatitis A.
"There are three that stood out: Drug use, recently incarcerated and homelessness," Holt told commissioners.
District 5 Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith challenged Holt about his earlier comments to ABC Action News.
"There was a statement that you made publicly that offended many people and the statement that was made on ABC Action News was that in looking for Hepatitis 'We should fish where the fish are.' This was an insincere statement in my view and it should not have been made by a public health official," said Smith.
Supporters of Hamburger Mary's called on commissioners to hold the health department accountable.
"Dr. Holt engaged in a discriminatory practice of trying to label us and our businesses as a faction of the community that should be avoided, if you are concerned for your health," said Peter Horseman.
Hillsborough County commissioners do not have jurisdiction over the county health department, which answers to the state.
The I-Team has reached out to Gov. Ron DeSantis to see if he plans to take action on the state level and is still waiting for a response.