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‘God told me not to take this vaccine:’ Brevard restaurateur won’t ask employees to get COVID shot

Joe Penovich employs 400 people

Joe Penovich, part owner of Grills Seafood Deck & Tiki Bars in Port Canaveral, Melbourne and Orlando, as well as Sunrise Marina and Obsession Fishing Charters, won't ask his 400-plus workers to get vaccinated.
Joe Penovich, part owner of Grills Seafood Deck & Tiki Bars in Port Canaveral, Melbourne and Orlando, as well as Sunrise Marina and Obsession Fishing Charters, won't ask his 400-plus workers to get vaccinated. (Chris Kridler/Florida Today)

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – What will President Biden’s vaccine mandates mean for restaurant owners across the Space Coast?

It’s too soon to know, said Geoff Luebkemann, senior vice president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.

While many local restaurant owners are waiting for more details from Biden’s order that businesses with 100 or more employees require their workforce to get vaccines or take weekly COVID tests, at least one already has made up his mind. He feels so strongly about it, he’s ready to take any controversy his decision might trigger.

Joe Penovich, part-owner of Grills Seafood Deck & Tiki Bars in Port Canaveral, Melbourne and Orlando, as well as Sunrise Marina and Obsession Fishing Charters, won’t ask his 400-plus workers to get vaccinated.

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“From a personal perspective, I believe God told me not to take this vaccine,” he wrote in the letter sent to his employees earlier this week and posted on Instagram Wednesday. “I don’t make a statement like that lightly and I haven’t shared that position publicly until now. It happened in a very powerful way, during an intentional sabbatical of prayer, way before the debate became so heated or possibility of government action existed.”

Penovich said in the letter that he knows his position won’t be popular with everyone.

“I realize there is a deep divide over this issue that will most likely never be resolved,” he wrote. “I also realize if you’re not a believer, that statement may seem ridiculous. That divide is much more consequential, but I know the religion of Christianity has often been very politicized, very ugly and very wrong. I pray that begins to change among the followers of Jesus Christ.”

Penovich said Thursday that he tried to write from a non-political viewpoint.

“I’m not pro-Trump or anti-Biden, but I’m a very strong believer,” he said.

Nor is he anti-vaccine — he said he supports his employees and anyone else who gets it — and he knows the virus is real and serious. He knows people who’ve died, he knows people who’ve gotten sick, vaccinated and unvaccinated.

After weeks of prayer, he felt strongly that God was telling him not to get the vaccine.

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“I don’t know why I got such a strong direction,” he said. “But as an employer, I have to respect the rights of those people I employ to make that decision, also.”

He doesn’t feel he has the right to strongarm people into getting a vaccine with the threat of losing their livelihood, and he said he’s not comfortable having that responsibility forced on him.

Penovich also said he’s not trying to skirt the law. If it’s required, he’ll test unvaccinated employees weekly, even though that could cost as much as $8,000 a month.

“We will do that to the extent that we are financially able,” he said.

He said for the most part, his employees have been grateful.

“I’ve got people who have worked for me for 20 years,” he said. “They have their own reasons to not get the vaccine.”

Other owners of large Space Coast restaurants declined to talk about how they’ll handle the mandates. Some cited HIPPA concerns about asking employees their vaccination status even though HIPPA only applies to health care professionals. In July, the Department of Justice announced that federal law doesn’t prohibit federal agencies or private businesses from mandating vaccines.

“We’re waiting on everything to be hashed out,” said Courtney Fowler, an owner of Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux in Viera, which employs about 140 people. “It’s hard to have a real discussion on it when we don’t know what the rules look like yet.”

It remains unclear how the requirements will be implemented and what enforcement will look like.

“As with any proposed rule, the devil is in the details,” Luebkemann said. “We’re standing by to see what that means.”

Luebkemann said guidelines are needed to determine whether part-time employees are counted among the 100, and how this will impact chains versus independent restaurants.

Under normal circumstances, requirements such as this would go through months of public comment and input before going into effect, he said. But because this is an emergency order, the commenting deadlines are fast-tracked or waived.

“It could happen pretty quickly,” Luebkmann said, “in a matter of weeks not months.”


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