JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – East Tennessee State University lifted its mask mandate and suspended COVID-19 vaccination requirements for certain employees Wednesday after a federal judge’s decision changed the state of Tennessee’s approach to enforcing its own COVID-19 law.
The move follows a U.S. District Court judge’s injunction Tuesday that bars the federal government from enforcing President Biden’s executive order related to federal contractors.
While that law was in effect — and if a higher court eventually allows its implementation — Tennessee’s comptroller’s office had allowed entities involved in federal contracting to file for exemptions from the state law if doing so would have caused them to lose federal revenue.
The state suspended those exemptions Wednesday. ETSU President Brian Noland sent a letter to faculty, staff and students informing them of the change Wednesday afternoon.
ETSU and several other universities sought and were granted exemptions due to their work on federal projects. Those exemptions allowed ETSU to continue its mask mandate and to impose vaccination mandates on some employees with jobs tied to federal contracts.
But Public Chapter 6, the law signed by Gov. Bill Lee Nov. 12, bars governments, schools and local school districts from mandating vaccinations or requiring masks.
Chapter 2 of the law, passed in an October special session of the Tennessee legislature, states that “A governmental entity, school, or local education agency shall not mandate that a … person receive a COVID-19 vaccine.”
Another section of Chapter 2 states that “a school or a governing body of a school shall not require a person to wear a face covering while on school property…”
Noland’s memo said that in compliance with the law and in light of the suspended exemption, “we are statutorily required to lift the mask requirement effective immediately and suspend the vaccination requirements for employees covered by the federal contractor mandate.”
Noland went on to “strongly urge anyone who has not been vaccinated to consider getting the vaccine,” mentioning new strains of COVID-19 continuing to appear.
He also encouraged people to continue wearing masks. “Please remember that everyone’s health situation is unique, and I ask that our students, faculty and staff be respectful of individual decisions regarding masking.”
Noland said the university will update signs, FAQs on websites and other messaging “in the coming weeks.”
He thanked the ETSU community “for your continued patience as we navigate this complex and dynamic landscape.”
The comptroller’s office indicated Wednesday the exemptions could go back into effect if the injunctions, including another related to mandates for health care workers, are lifted.