Tennessee Republicans move to restrict Covid-19 protective measures | Courthouse News Service
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Tennessee Republicans move to restrict Covid-19 protective measures

The special session comes amid tensions between the state’s Republican legislators and local leaders in Democratic-leaning metropolitan areas, as officials in those cities have tried to implement protective measures to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CN) — Tennessee lawmakers filed a myriad of bills ahead of the state’s special legislative session starting Wednesday to address Covid-19 restrictions, many of which propose their own restrictions on the authority of schools and health officials and private businesses.

Republican Governor Bill Lee has resisted repeated requests from GOP lawmakers to hold a special session focused on Covid-19 measures, and instead issued an executive order overriding local school districts’ efforts to require staff and students to wear masks by giving parents the right to opt out of those requirements.

The order has been blocked by federal judges in at least three counties.

But last week, the majority needed to hold the session was reached after all of Tennessee’s Republican lawmakers signed on. It is the third special session this year and the third time in state history that lawmakers have called themselves into action without the governor, the Associated Press reported.

“We will ensure the distinctive voices of our communities are heard and individual choices and freedoms are preserved,” House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said last week.

At least 80 bills were filed as of Wednesday afternoon, most of which were House bills with no Senate sponsors as of the same time.

One of the bills, sponsored by Sexton and Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally, allows terminated employees to receive unemployment benefits if the termination was due to a refusal to receive a Covid-19 vaccination. 

Another bill, introduced by Representative Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, would make employers liable for side effects of Covid-19 vaccines under workers' compensation if they require vaccinations for employment. The bill is sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald.

A third bill prohibits public employers from mandating Covid-19 vaccines as conditions of employment. It allows private employers to continue requiring the vaccines, but it ascribes strict liability against those employers if an employee has a “severe adverse reaction or develops a severe health condition as the result of being vaccinated.” That proposal is sponsored by Representative Bud Hulsey, R-Kingsport, and Senator Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains.

When it comes to education, two bills — one in the House and one in the Senate — propose prohibiting public schools and universities from implementing contact-tracing procedures for Covid-19.

Two other House bills, while still without Senate sponsors, forbid state medical licensing officials from disciplining physicians “relating solely (to their) prescription, recommendation, use, or opinion relative to a treatment for Covid-19.”

Earlier this week, the Tennessean reported that the state’s top medical licensing boards instructed the Department of Health to investigate medical professionals who make “disprovable claims” about the virus or vaccines to patients or on social media. Resulting disciplinary actions could include the suspension of professional licenses.

The special session, expected to stretch into November, comes amid tensions between the state’s Republican-majority Legislature and Democratic-leaning metropolitan areas, as officials in those cities have tried to implement protective measures to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

Another driving factor is the Biden administration’s rules requiring personal protective equipment, social distancing and other safety measures for workers at health care facilities that care for people with Covid-19.

Tennessee Labor and Workforce Development officials informed lawmakers last week that the agency cannot reject the federal rule despite Republicans on the Government Operations Committee voting in favor of rejecting the federal safety protocols even if it meant risking penalties, according to an AP report.

The same committee threatened to dissolve the state Health Department earlier this year over its Covid-19 vaccination awareness campaign for teenagers.

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