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Gov. Lee signs sweeping COVID-19 bill into law

The new law could have broad consequences for businesses and schools enforcing COVID-19 vaccine and masking mandates.
Published: Nov. 12, 2021 at 6:25 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 12, 2021 at 10:08 PM EST
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed a sweeping COVID-19 bill into law Friday during a special session. The new legislation outlaws vaccine and mask mandates for government entities and schools and places restrictions on what businesses can do to ensure patrons are vaccinated. The new law also places restrictions on masking mandates statewide.

WVLT News spoke with legal expert Stuart Harris on the ramifications of the law, and he said it will likely hold up in court. According to Harris, however, the law is in clear conflict with President Biden’s vaccine mandate order for businesses with more than 100 employees.

Harris also said he expects Congress to exercise its power to withhold funding from organizations that violate Biden’s order, calling it “one of the most broad powers that Congress has.”

The Tennessee Comptroller’s Office launched a website for businesses to apply for exemptions from the law. Exemptions are necessary for any business that receives funding from the federal government that would be taken away without the implementation of a vaccine mandate.

The following outlines the law’s stance on certain COVID-19 protocols.

Vaccine Requirements

Under the new law, private businesses and schools are not allowed to require proof of vaccination to enter facilities. This means that businesses and schools will not be allowed to check if students, staff or customers are vaccinated before entering their premises.

The law also prohibits businesses, schools and governmental entities from encouraging vaccination by taking “adverse action against a person.”

The law does also include exceptions for businesses that participate in the Medicare program, like hospitals.

Face Coverings for Businesses

Gov. Lee’s new law also places restrictions on what businesses can require as far as masking. Under the law, any business that receives state tax credits or grant funds is no longer allowed to require employees or customers to wear face coverings unless several requirements are met. Under the law, businesses can only mandate masks if the governor has declared a COVID-19 state of emergency, the local county has a 14-day COVID-19 infection rate of 1,000 new infections per 100,000 residents and the mandate lasts for no more than 14 days.

The law also requires publicly-funded businesses to respect medical orders from a person’s doctor saying they cannot wear a mask for medical reasons.

Face Coverings for Schools

Under the law, schools cannot require people to wear masks on school property unless the school meets several requirements. Those requirements are:

  • The principal of the school must submit a written request to the local school board asking for a mask mandate
  • Severe conditions exist, like a COVID-19 state of emergency
  • The school board implements the masking mandate on a school-by-school basis, not universally
  • The masking mandate is in effect for no more than 14 days
  • The school provides masks that filter out at least 95 percent of airborne particles, like N95 masks, to students aged five and up

The law also prohibits school officials from using state funds to enforce a mask mandate. It is not clear now how the new law will affect Knox County’s federally-ordered masking requirements.

The law does allow for exemptions for medical reasons and “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Unemployment

The law also outlines new protocol for those unemployed because they do not want to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The law protects unemployment benefits for those who quit work because they do not want to get the vaccine. It also allows for retroactive payments for those already unemployed because they refuse to be vaccinated.

The full bill can be read on the state’s website.

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