TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) – Saturday marked the end of a special-called session of the Tennessee General Assembly. Many lawmakers went in with the goal of prohibiting a wide range of COVID-19 restrictions in the state.
Tennessee Republicans called for a special session on COVID-19 mandates. Following Saturday’s conclusion of the session, they advanced legislation they say is aimed at protecting the rights of people statewide.
“We’ve been concerned by what we feel, and many Tennesseans feel, is overreach by the Biden administration in mandating masks, in mandating vaccines,” said Rep. David Hawk (R) of Greeneville.
Lawmakers passed legislation exempting most Tennesseans from any vaccinate mandates by government entities, private businesses or schools.
“While trying to advocate for those who want a vaccine, we are also trying to advocate for those who do not want a vaccine,” said Hawk.
“I have a strong belief that if a needle goes into your body, it needs to be on your own terms, when you are ready for it,” said Rep., Scotty Campbell (R) of Mountain City.
There are some exceptions to the ban on vaccine mandates, including in healthcare, and for entities with federal contracts relying on federal money.
“Legally we were not able to overturn the vaccine mandates in those specific instances,” said Hawk.
Regarding mask mandates, lawmakers voted to limit who can require a mask, when and for how long.
“People are ready for freedom and liberty. This gives them that,” said Campbell.
The new legislation would no longer allow government bodies and public schools to require face coverings, unless counties meet a certain criteria for COVID case count.
They would only be allowed to require masks if they are in a county with a rolling average 14-day COVID-19 infection rate of at least 1,000 per 100,000 residents. Under those conditions, they can enact a 14-day mandate that is subject to renewal. No county currently reaches that threshold for COVID-19 cases and Tennessee has not hit this criteria during surges.
Private schools, private businesses, jails and airports still can require a mask at their discretion.
“Masks aren’t necessarily the direction we want to go in the state of Tennessee. That is something we are willing to go to court on, and go to court fairly quickly,” said Hawk.
Lawmakers also voted to limit the power of the six independent metro health departments in the state, which includes Sullivan County’s Regional Health Department. The legislation gives the state health department more power to make decisions.
SCRHD Medical Director Dr. Steven May told News Channel 11 last week he does not agree with this.
“My reaction would be, just leave us alone we are doing okay. Sullivan County has been in a very unique position. We have worked from day one with our county leaders and they have been exceptional to work with. I don’t think it’s a good idea to mix politics with medical science and medical data,” Dr. May stated on October 27.
The new bills now head to the desk of Tennessee Governor Bill Lee before they become law. The Governor can either sign a bill into law, allow it to pass without his signature or veto a bill.
The Governor tweeted Saturday saying his office is evaluating each piece of legislation.