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VOL. 45 | NO. 45 | Friday, November 5, 2021

Gov. Lee plans to sign bill to limit COVID rules

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NASHVILLE (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Wednesday he plans to sign a wide-reaching bill strictly limiting what governments and companies can require to address the COVID-19 pandemic, despite opposition from prominent business interests.

The Republican told reporters "there are some issues we need to work through" with the legislation, but his signature will enact the changes as lawmakers passed them, putting them in effect immediately.

Major restrictions would largely bar governments and businesses from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccinations, and only let public agencies — including schools — require masks due to COVID-19 in rare, dire public health scenarios.

Lee, who is up for reelection next year, had not weighed in on the bill directly until Wednesday, using it to criticize President Joe Biden's requirement for workers at larger employers to get a COVID-19 vaccine by Jan. 4 or face rigorous COVID-19 testing, which a federal appeals court has paused for now amid legal challenges. The state law will conflict with that requirement, sparking headaches for businesses that can face lawsuits under the law if someone feels slighted by a company's vaccination requirement.

"We want to make sure that the particulars of this legislation are the appropriate ones, but on balance, I agree with what's in the package, which is why I plan to sign it," Lee said.

Republican lawmakers passed the bill after calling themselves into a three-day COVID-19 session last month because Lee declined to do so.

Lawmakers met behind closed doors for hours after manufacturers including Ford Motor Co. — for whom lawmakers had just approved an economic development package for a massive new Tennessee electric vehicle and battery production project — opposed the limitations on business mask mandates.

In the dark of the night, Republicans relented and carved private businesses out of stringent mask restrictions.

Leaders of two influential business groups said they let the governor know their concerns but were not lobbying for a veto. Tennessee lawmakers can easily override vetoes, and Lee has not vetoed anything in office. Instead, they are hoping to make their case for changes during the annual legislative session that begins in January.

Lee specifically mentioned a need to change a provision about visitors to COVID-19 patients in hospitals. Hospitals would be required during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow at least one family member to stay with a patient who does not have and is not showing symptoms of COVID-19 or another virus or communicable disease. Lee said his understanding is that the intent was to limit that visitation change to only end-of-life COVID-19 situations.

He also mentioned his priority for keeping the state in charge of workplace safety regulation, since federal counterparts can take over a state's program if the state is not being at least as stringent as what the federal government requires.

The governor defended plans to sign a bill opposed by industry interests, saying Tennessee is "one of the most business friendly states in America." He said businesses are obligated to share their concerns with lawmakers and he promised to "work with them to make sure that we have the right outcomes."

Leaders of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the state's National Federation of Independent Business chapter are specifically troubled that the bill is enforced by allowing businesses and other entities to be sued. There's also concern about what constitutes an employer's adverse action that triggers cause to sue. For instance, the bill allows entertainment venues to accept proof of vaccination instead of a negative COVID-19 test result. But it's unclear whether companies can require regular testing of employees without risking a lawsuit.

Republican legislative leaders have defended what passed. A spokesperson for House Speaker Cameron Sexton, for one, has said the leader "disagrees with the direction NFIB and Tennessee Chamber is requesting."

Jim Brown, director of NFIB's state chapter, described the special session dust-up between businesses and lawmakers over the bill as "water under the bridge."

"We're grateful to Gov. Lee and lawmakers who are telling us they're open to hear the concerns about the legislation and how those can be addressed in January," Brown said.

The bill also could set off a wave of government entities and businesses who contact the state comptroller seeking exemptions to vaccine or mask mandate bans. The bill requires them to show they would lose federal funding by complying with the state law. Other groups, including health care facilities, are already exempted out.

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Follow AP's coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.

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