Commentary

Stockard on the Stump: Republican lawmakers could look outside mask mandates

August 20, 2021 5:00 am
Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)

Tennessee State Capitol (Photo: John Partipilo)

Even before Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools balked at Gov. Bill Lee’s opt-out order on mask mandates, legislators were considering curtailing vaccine “passports” and possibly even contact tracing in schools.

And with the state at loggerheads with both districts, things could get tough.

House Speaker Cameron Sexton says everything is being considered against the state’s two largest school districts.

At the same time, Rep. Scott Cepicky, a rising voice in the House Republican Caucus who attended the governor’s press conference Monday, said afterward GOP lawmakers are likely to act on requirements the private sector is putting on employees and customers for vaccines.

“I think we’ll probably take a look at that. And then one of the things we’re starting to see in our schools that’s really starting to take out a lot of kids is contact tracing. I think we’re probably going to need some governance or some guidance from the Department of Health on vaccinated, unvaccinated, what the difference is and relate that to contact tracing,” Cepicky said.

The Culleoka Republican said the issue is starting to become a concern with high school games kicking off across the state and contact tracing potentially forcing some teams to forfeit.

Sen. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, and Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, during a meeting of the Joint Government Operations Committee on Wednesday. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, at right, during a meeting of the Joint Government Operations Committee in July. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Hundreds of students have tested positive for COVID statewide and even more have been quarantined because they had contact with those who came down with the virus.

An even bigger question, though, is whether the state will try to slap businesses that require employees and customers to be vaccinated or show proof of a negative COVID test.

Tyson Foods, a key player in the state’s chicken industry, is among the companies requiring employees to be vaccinated, something that isn’t sitting well with some workers.

All team members at U.S. locations are to be vaccinated by Oct. 1, and I hear some plants are requiring workers to have their shots already. Half of Tyson’s workforce is vaccinated, and COVID infection rates are low, according to the company’s website.

“With rapidly raising COVID-19 case counts of contagious, dangerous variants leading to increasing rates of severe illness and hospitalization among the U.S. unvaccinated population, this is the right time to take the next step to ensure a fully vaccinated workforce,” said Dr. Claudia Coplein, chief medical officer for Tyson Foods.

Since February, the company has held more than 100 vaccination events, and more than 56,000 U.S. employees have been vaccinated, according to its website.

Tyson is even giving $200 to its frontline team members to encourage full vaccinations, pending discussions with unions.

Gov. Bill Lee, who helped cut the ribbon this year on a new Tyson plant in West Tennessee, loves the company but opposes vaccine “passports.”

“I think it would be a bad idea for businesses and I don’t suspect we’re going to see a lot of that in this state. But we’ll see where it goes,” he said.

Asked if he will take any action to stop Tyson and other companies from requiring vaccines, Lee said, “We’ll consider it as we see that happen in our state. There’s nothing off the table. I think it’s a bad idea for them to do that.”

A Tyson spokesman said the company doesn’t comment on pending legislation but noted the company believes nothing is more important than the health and safety of workers. “We believe getting vaccinated is the single most effective thing our team members can do to protect themselves, their families, and the communities where we operate,” he said.

Gov. Lee has said nearly the same thing, but he continues walking a fine line, possibly to placate the conservative wing of Republican voters.

We'll consider it as we see that happen in our state. There's nothing off the table. I think it's a bad idea for them to do that.

– Gov. Bill Lee on taking action to stop private compamies from requiring COVID-19 vaccines for employees.

Incidentally, Bonnaroo is requiring vaccinations or a proof of a negative test at its early September event in Manchester, as are concert venues across Nashville. 

If Lee and the Legislature were to shut them down, they might as well kiss the young vote goodbye. What, no Foo Fighters?

Memphis balks at state

The Memphis City Council passed a resolution by Councilwoman Michalyn Easter-Thomas this week opposing Gov. Lee’s executive order on masks in schools.

The resolution points out fully vaccinated people can spread the virus and with the Delta variant increasing cases statewide, “layered prevention strategies” such as wearing masks are being emphasized. Lee’s order counteracts an order by Shelby County Health Department mandating masks for school employees, students and visitors, the resolution says.

“Disagreeing” with the governor’s position, the City Council aligns itself with the CDC in protecting the “health, safety and well-being” of citizens and urges Gov. Lee to rescind his order.

Michalyn Easter-Thomas, Memphis Councilwoman (Photo: Memphistn.gov)
Michalyn Easter-Thomas, Memphis Councilwoman (Photo: Memphistn.gov)

“We just want to assert, one, that we have local legislators elected to fully govern and protect the citizens of Memphis and we don’t … welcome Executive Order 84 to overrule what we see as best for our citizens,” said Easter-Thomas, who works at Overton High School. “Also, we’re standing in solidarity and in tandem with the Shelby County Health Department, which has its own rights to rule because it’s not state-led and also our own local school board, which is elected.”

The Shelby County Health Department is one of six health departments operating independently from the state and has drawn fire from lawmakers who want to render it toothless.

Easter-Thomas said she hopes the matter doesn’t make its way to the courts but couldn’t be sure.

The way things are going, though, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the federal government or the Metro Nashville and Shelby County school districts, with federal backing, file suit against Tennessee.

That ain’t cool

Former Department of Health immunizations medical director Dr. Michelle Fiscus and her husband, Brad, say they are feeling the wrath of people upset with her push for vaccines and a state report showing she sent herself a muzzle shortly before she was fired in July.

The Department of Homeland Security investigation found the muzzle, which Fiscus said could have been a threat, was purchased on an Amazon account Fiscus opened in March and using her American Express card. The Fiscuses claim the muzzle was sent to her office by someone else and told state investigators the same thing. In fact, they requested the Department of Homeland Security find out who sent them the dog muzzle.

Whether Fiscus had the muzzle sent to herself isn’t really relevant to the entire episode. What is relevant is that the state fired the chief immunization officer for political reasons.

A statement from their attorney is likely to be made within the next few days.

Meanwhile, Brad Fiscus said he had to change his cell phone number because of numerous hate phone calls. Recordings of those calls, which refer to them both as overweight and call them terrible names, are not kind, to say the least.

Whether Fiscus had the muzzle sent to her to garner sympathy isn’t really relevant to this entire episode. What is important is that the state fired someone who was in charge of the state’s immunization program for reasons that appear to be purely political.

If, indeed, the phone calls to Fiscus are real, they show just how far some people will stoop in the COVID world.

Kelsey already has opponent

Republican state Sen. Brian Kelsey of Germantown barely won election against Democrat Gabby Salinas in the last cycle. He has another Democrat lined up against him already in Ruby Powell-Dennis for the District 31 seat.

A former educator, Powell-Dennis recently announced for the election. She touts herself as a product of the public education system and as someone from a family who pulled itself up by its bootstraps to make its way in life.

Powell-Dennis is likely to be a contrast to Kelsey on nearly every issue in the 2022 election. Kelsey spent most of his energy during the 2021 session setting up a “right to work” constitutional amendment widely opposed by unions. It will be on the next ballot.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, serves as Tennessee Chair of ALEC. Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Powell-Dennis, in contrast, is focused on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Kelsey, although he has faithfully worn masks during legislative meetings, was one of those who did not sign a Senate Republican letter encouraging people to get vaccinated.

Kelsey is already running into problems in District 31 as it becomes more diverse. The shift is likely to be even greater by next year, enabling Powell-Dennis to pick up support.

Kelsey would benefit from a major redrawing of district lines this year to give him stronger backing among white Republican voters. That could mean Republican Sen. Paul Rose’s district, which takes in eastern Shelby and Tipton counties, could move north.

Whatever it takes, Kelsey is likely to be rooting for district lines that will benefit him at the polls. Who could blame him?

 

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.

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