(The Center Square) – Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed the state's COVID-19 omnibus bill Friday, ensuring government entities cannot force private businesses to institute COVID-19 mandates and private businesses cannot take action against unvaccinated employees nor compel an employee or visitor to show proof of vaccination.
Lee also signed bills on partisan school board elections, district attorneys, banking collateral, the length of time allowed for executive orders and appropriations related to bills coming out of the Legislature's COVID-19-related special session.
The 21-page bill provides 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. 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 greatest concern we have, and the reason this came about, is the federal mandate for requiring businesses to vaccinate their employees,” Lee said Wednesday. “That created the General Assembly’s response."
Lee said he objected to one portion of the omnibus bill on hospitals and visitations, saying the language needed to be adjusted during regular legislative session in January. House Speaker Cameron Sexton and Lt. Gov. Randy McNally acknowledged discussions on that portion of the bill and said action would be possible during regular session if it is deemed necessary.
Along with the omnibus bill, Lee also signed Senate Bill 9007, which pays for any bills signed into law out of the Legislature’s COVID-19-related special session.
Lee also signed Senate Bill 9008, which allows the attorney general to petition for a district attorney replacement in cases where a local district attorney refuses to prosecute all instances of any offense. During discussion of the bill, Metro Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk was mentioned after he made public comments stating he would not prosecute charges of simple possession of marijuana.
Other bills the governor signed:
• House Bill 9072: Allows local county political parties to elect to have partisan school board elections;
• House Bill 9073: Changes the amount and variety of collateral banks need to have on hand;
• House Bill 9075: Limits the length of effectiveness of executive orders from the governor to 45 days instead of 60 days.
Lee did not sign House Bill 9076, which allows the governor to issue orders and directives regarding county health departments during a pandemic. Lee did not veto the measure, so it will become law without his signature. The bill also allows county mayors the authority to issue health and safety orders for county residents related to public health.
"I understand and appreciate the General Assembly's concerns over the exercise of certain local authority during the pandemic; however, this bill requires significant updates to account for the non-pandemic functions of public health departments," Lee wrote to Sexton. "I have discussed the necessary updates with you and Lt. Gov. McNally, and I appreciate your joint commitment to pursue these updates during the upcoming legislative session."