House Minority Leader Karen Camper, still feeling the ill effects of COVID-19, is asking Gov. Bill Lee to give his State of the State address virtually and order the Legislature to hold its sessions online as the 112th General Assembly convenes.

In a pre-Christmas letter to the governor, the Memphis Democrat requested Lee also send a strong message to lawmakers asking them to wear masks in committee and floor meetings held in the House and Senate chambers.

Tennessee House Minority Leader Rep. Karen Camper, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Tennessee House Minority Leader Rep. Karen Camper, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Camper, one of several lawmakers to catch the virus, pointed out in her Dec. 19 letter that Tennessee is the “epicenter” for COVID-19 infections, leading the world in cases per capita. She urged the governor to mandate masks in hallways, offices and committee rooms of the Capitol, Cordell Hull Building and adjoining state office facilities.

“Mere encouragement is not going to stop this virus,” she wrote. “We must be the example for the rest of the state and the nation.”

The Governor’s Office did not respond Wednesday to questions about Camper’s letter or how he would react. Instead of agreeing with Camper’s requests, though, the governor called for the Jan. 19 special session to deal with problems within the education system caused by the COVID-19 crisis. 

Camper contended that because not all of the state’s legislators believe the virus is “real and/or not as deadly as science and health officials have shown it to be,” the state needs to set standards for masks, distancing and hand washing/sanitizing.

She made note of a Dec. 17 meeting of the Joint Fiscal Review Committee in which Sen. Todd Gardenhire insisted that people testifying remove their masks, including Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, who at first objected but then complied. Gardenhire later moved around the room and spoke to members without wearing a mask.

With the 112th General Assembly set to convene Jan. 12, then gavel in again Jan. 19 for a special session on education initiatives, Camper suggested the Legislature move to a virtual session and that the governor move his annual State of the State address to a virtual format. The State of the State usually draws an overflow crowd to the House chamber where senators and representatives sit close to each other, and numerous administration officials, family members and other luminaries attend.

“This will save countless numbers of cases being generated in the General Assembly,” Camper wrote, adding Virginia is moving to a fully virtual session along with several other states. 

The majority of state legislatures are not going to an online format, but Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon is to give his State of the State address virtually, before legislators decide whether to hold a virtual session in February or an in-person session in March, the Associated Press reported.

Gov. Lee has not made any mention of shifting to a virtual session, and House and Senate speakers are not moving in that direction. Instead, they are planning to take a few more steps to protect members and staff, including using an antibacterial mist. The House is also set to make Plexiglas barriers around lawmakers’ desks bigger and using a new temperature checking device that will scan people’s temperature into a computer. Days on the Hill are to be canceled, legislative receptions are likely to be eliminated, and internships are being cut in half.

Several state lawmakers have contracted COVID-19, including Camper, who missed almost all of a mid-summer session with the illness. Republican state Rep. David Byrd of Waynesboro has been hospitalized and on a ventilator for weeks.

Nationally, about 250 state lawmakers have caught the virus, and at least seven have died, according to an Associated Press report.

  We don't need your daddy to tell me what to do. And I just fundamentally resent that, that somebody needs to tell me to wear a dang mask. I wear a freakin' mask, thank you very much, and I don't need somebody to tell me to do it. I think the rest of the Legislature's like that too.   – Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby

State Rep. Jeremy Faison,  who chairs the House Republican Caucus, said he believes enough steps are being taken to protect people as the session starts. He doesn’t think Camper’s proposals are necessary, either.

“We’re gonna do our work. We’re gonna be careful. The vaccine’s gonna (be available). A lot of members have had COVID. A lot of people are getting the vaccine soon,” Faison, of Cosby in East Tennessee, said Wednesday.

Faison disagreed vehemently with the notion the governor should mandate or strongly suggest legislators wear masks. 

Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Legislators are well aware of the seriousness of COVID-19, he said, pointing out the governor can’t require lawmakers to put them on.

“We don’t need your daddy to tell you what to do. And I just fundamentally resent that, that somebody needs to tell me to wear a dang mask. I wear a freakin’ mask, thank you very much, and I don’t need somebody to tell me to do it. I think the rest of the Legislature’s like that too,” Faison said.

Faison argues that even governments that put “draconian” mask requirements in place have high COVID-19 rates, and he doesn’t believe governments can control the viral spread by setting rules.

The state government is succeeding, he said, by delivering the vaccine and helping people obtain healthcare.

Tennessee ranks in the top 10 in the state for vaccine delivering, giving about 50% of the doses delivered by the federal government.

Camper, however, said in her letter that Tennesseans ill with COVID-19 are being forced to travel to different states for treatment because hospitals and intensive care units here are full.