Tennessee Legislature passes sweeping COVID rules bill overnight

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After hours of deliberation and the formation of a legislative conference committee, the Tennessee Legislature passed a 21-page omnibus COVID-19 bill early Saturday morning to close its special session.

The bill in its original form gained negative attention from several businesses in the state, including the Ford Motor Company, which was the subject of last week’s special session when the Legislature approved $884 million in spending related to Ford’s $5.6 billion electric truck factory outside of Memphis.

“We have heard from a number of businesses and groups regarding proposals, including Ford and other [original equipment manufacturers], and we have told them to reach out directly to legislators with their concerns.” said Laine Arnold of Gov. Bill Lee’s office.

The final bill said government entities cannot force private businesses to institute a mask mandate or COVID-19 vaccination mandate, and private businesses cannot take action against an employee for not receiving the vaccine and cannot compel an employee or visitor to show proof of vaccination.

“This is a reckless way to legislate” Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said about the 1 a.m. vote on the measures. Yarbro was part of the Senate conference committee.

The bill allows an opt-out for music venues to allow for proof of vaccination instead of a negative COVID-19 test for admission.

The bill prevents government entities from requiring masks.

“We just passed the Covid protection bill in the House and Senate,” said Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, who was part of the House conference committee. “Huge win for the people of Tennessee. Since it is almost 2:30am EST, I’ll provide an update in a few hours.”

Schools would need to go through an intricate process to require masks and only on a school-by-school basis, not district-wide.

A principal would need to request the action, and the state would need to have a health emergency declared along with a rolling 14-day average of 1,000 cases per 100,000 residents. In that case, a school could institute a 14-day mask mandate and would be required to provide children age 12 or older with an N95 mask, along with “age-appropriate” masks for children younger than 12.

The bill also allows those who leave a job because of a COVID-19 vaccination mandate to be eligible for unemployment benefits.

The state’s commissioner of health becomes the sole authority on quarantine guidelines, and minors must have parental approval to be given the vaccine.

“A local health entity or official, mayor, governmental entity, or school does not have the authority to quarantine a person or private business for purposes of COVID-19,” the bill states.

The bill also limits what the state will do to enforce any federal COVID-19 guidelines.

“Except for emergency rules already in effect and until the emergency rule expires, personnel or property of this state, or any governmental entity of this state, shall not be allocated for the implementation, regulation, or enforcement of any federal law, executive order, rule, or regulation that mandates the administration of a COVID-19 countermeasure,” the bill read.

That part of the regulation does not apply to any private business, government entity, school or employer that provides the comptroller with notice that compliance would impact its federal funding.

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