Hamburger Mary’s Tampa files suit against Dept. of Health

By : Ryan Williams-Jent
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ABOVE: Hamburger Mary greets guests at Mary’s Brandon in Feb. 2019 before its closure. Photo by Ryan Williams-Jent.

TAMPA |Former Hamburger Mary’s franchise owner Kurt King is suing the Florida Dept. of Health (DOH) in Hillsborough County and Director Dr. Douglas Holt for discrimination after the closure of his Brandon, St. Petersburg and Tampa restaurants.

King is seeking damages in excess of $15,000. He alleges that in Oct. 2018, the DOH and Dr. Holt falsely reported a positive case of hepatitis A in a Hamburger Mary’s Tampa employee—a highly-contagious liver infection—because the establishment was LGBTQ-owned and operated.

The DOH alerted the media and provided vaccinations for employees and diners that frequented the Ybor City location Oct. 4-20. 2018. King subsequently announced its permanent, same-day closure Nov. 6, 2018.

“We, along with our management team and dedicated staff, have done our best to keep Mary’s doors open for nine years, but the latest challenge over the last couple of weeks has proven to be too much to overcome,” he shared at the time. “It was our pleasure to serve the entire community whether it was a safe place to come and enjoy a meal amongst friends or a place to hold your community fundraisers.”

King publicly alleged homophobia contributed to the closure in Jan. 2019, pointing to Dr. Holt’s discussion with area ABC affiliate WFTS. “If you’re going to fish, you need to go where the fish are,” he advised the outlet. “Half of [Hepatitis A 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.”

It was then that King also noted the employee in question had tested non-reactive for hepatitis A. He provided Watermark with lab results conducted by Tampa General that showed a non-reactive test result, though no patient name was included.

“There’s absolutely no doubt that the individual had hepatitis A,” DOH Public Information Officer Kevin Watler told Watermark Jan. 24. “We are limited in what else we can say about the case due to health privacy laws.” He further noted that the DOH had “taken no homophobic views in response to the Hamburger Mary’s incident.”

“I closed down Hamburger Mary’s in Ybor and I was trying to keep Hamburger Mary’s Brandon and St. Petersburg going,” King recalls. “I thought I was doing the right thing by exposing [the DOH] and thought maybe it would help me keep the other ones open.”

It didn’t. “It affected the other business in Brandon and St. Petersburg,” he asserts. “I just couldn’t recover from it—they put it in everybody’s mind that we served hepatitis at Hamburger Mary’s.”

The Brandon and St. Petersburg restaurants announced their imminent closures in Feb. 2019. “Both locations have suffered sustained losses from the continuing effects of the slanderous assault on Mary’s good name and that of her employees from the Hillsborough office of the State Health Department,” King shared, “which forced their sister locations in Ybor City to close.”

“Even at the end of the day, if my employee had hepatitis, I didn’t deserve that,” King says. “How can I control what somebody else does? … At the end of the day, what they still did to me was wrong.”

Dr. Holt “is the one that said you have ‘to go fishing where the fish are,’ I didn’t,” King continues. “I just closed down. I closed down after a couple of weeks of being bashed and the sales dropped to nothing. I tried to save my other two restaurants and mind my own business, just trying to move on, and they just kept coming after me.”

King notes that he isn’t filing the lawsuit just for himself, but also for his 200 former employees and entertainers. “They were my family,” he says. “I’m trying to fight for all of them.”

Watermark reached out to the DOH and was advised officials are unable to comment on pending litigation.

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