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What's causing mystery illness at Delray eatery? Officials plan next steps

State health officials have assigned a specialist to figure out what is sickening employees of Burt & Max's Bar and Grille in Delray Beach.

At least 10 employees have developed rashes, eye irritation, sore throats and breathing problems since Dec. 28.

The Florida Department of Health found no signs of foodborne illness or any other common cause during an investigation last week, said Tim O'Connor, a spokesman for the Palm Beach County department.

A doctor specializing in the spread of infectious disease is being assigned to speak with employees who had symptoms, the department said.

"We don't get too many [mystery cases] like this. Usually it can be identified," O'Connor said. "There is nothing standing out at this point."

State restaurant inspectors also are monitoring the situation, said Kathleen Keenan, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

They plan to conduct a final inspection before the restaurant reopens, she said, noting the restaurant has been "extremely proactive" in addressing the issue.

Owner Burt Rapoport initially planned to open the restaurant Tuesday, but decided against it pending additional testing and cleaning, he said.

Rapoport closed the restaurant — situated in the Delray Marketplace at 9089 W. Atlantic Ave. — from Dec. 28 until Saturday lunchtime after 10 employees in the kitchen complained of symptoms.

After cleaning, disinfecting and sitting in the kitchen himself, Rapoport opened again on New Year's Eve but closed after several kitchen employees reported similar symptoms, he said.

"I'm just at a loss," Rapoport said Tuesday. "I'd like to be able to open this weekend, but we will just have to see how everything goes today, tomorrow and Thursday."

The rashes are appearing only on exposed skin, Rapoport said, leading him to believe it might be something in the air.

Rapoport hired an environmental testing company to check the air quality. Initial testing found the restaurant had no problems with mold, fiber glass or asbestos, he said. Plumbing tests also turned up nothing, he said.

He plans to disinfect the restaurant again in addition to cleaning the entire air-conditioning system before opening, Rapoport said.

"I'm certainly frustrated and certainly feel bad for the employees that are out of work right now, so I just want to get it resolved so everyone can get back to work," Rapoport said., 561-243-6544 or Twitter: @RyanVanVelzer

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