Legislature passes late night COVID omnibus bill

Creates carve out enabling Ford to require masks; other restrictions remain in place

By: and - October 30, 2021 11:18 am
Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, left, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Majority Leader William Lamberth, all Republicans, had strong words for Nashville's leadership after Metro Council rejected a contract to hold the 2024 Republican National Committee in the city. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton, left, Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Majority Leader William Lamberth, all Republicans, had strong words for Nashville’s leadership after Metro Council rejected a contract to host the 2024 Republican National Committee. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The Legislature backpedaled on COVID-19 bills just enough early Saturday to pass a comprehensive measure and still placate companies such as Ford, which is to receive a $900 million incentive package to build an electric truck and battery plant in West Tennessee.

After going through a conference committee to iron out differences, the Legislature approved a bill enabling companies to require masks, a major concession to Ford Motor Co. as it embarks on a $5.6 billion campus that will employ 5,800 people in 2025.

Public schools, in contrast, would be able to mandate masks only in “severe” situations, and districts would have to do so one school at a time  — and for no more than 14 days.

Most prohibitions on vaccine mandates remain in the legislation, despite complaints from the business community. 

Entities that receive federal funds such as federal contractors would be able to require vaccines after obtaining approval from the State Comptroller’s Office. 

Liability protections for businesses would last until July 2022, but the entire package of COVID-19 laws would end in July 2023.

Ford Motor Co., which just received a $900 million incentive package from the state, can require masks on its West Tennessee campus. By contrast, public schools can only require masks under strict guidelines, in one school at a time and for no more than 14 days.

The Senate passed the final bill 22-4, while the House approved it 58-22 in the early hours of the morning.

State Rep. Chris Todd, a Madison County Republican who sponsored a key amendment in the House, told members that wearing a mask should be a personal choice. 

But he acknowledged, “We’re trying to get something accomplished here this week” while making sure businesses can continue to operate and employees can work as customers enter.

"This is a reckless way to govern, Mr. Speaker," said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, Nashville Democrat, of the haste to push the massive bill. (Photo: John Partipilo)
“This is a reckless way to govern, Mr. Speaker,” said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, Nashville Democrat, of the haste to push the massive bill. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Todd pointed out a vaccine is a different issue than a mask because the shot is taken internally while, “a mask is something you can take off when you leave that property.”

State Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, had harsh words for his colleagues about the speed with which the far-reaching legislation was crafted: 

“This is a reckless way to legislate, Mr. Speaker,” Yarbro said. “This is an effort that is beneath the respect of our body.” 

Ford and a host of businesses across the state opposed the legislation Friday, potentially derailing the General Assembly’s special session to fight the federal government’s vaccine mandate and mask requirements across the state.

A Ford official sent senators a text message – reviewed by Tennessee Lookout – early Friday saying, “Thanks for all the recent help with the funding package! We are very concerned, however, with the current legislative proposal that would prohibit companies from requiring masks. Wearing masks is what’s kept our facilities running through this.”

Highlights of the omnibus bill:

  • Private companies and public entities cannot mandate vaccines, with exceptions for hospitals, nursing homes and other medical facilities that receive funding through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
  • No public entity, including public schools, may require masks unless “severe conditions” exist. A severe condition is defined as the governor having declared a state of an emergency and a 14-day rolling average of at least 1,000 new COVID infections per 100,000 residents.
  • There can be no school district-wide mask mandates. Individual schools may only mandate masks for 14 days at a time under severe conditions with approval from the school district.
  • Concert venues will still be allowed to ask for either a vaccine or proof of negative COVID test
  • Private companies, including private schools, may require masks.
  • In home workers — such as nannies and home healthcare aides — can be required to wear masks.
  • Correctional facilities — jails and prisons — may create mask mandates.
  • Airport authorities may also require masks.

With Gov. Bill Lee declining to get involved in the special session fresh off his victory over Ford’s recruitment and incentives approved in a special session last week, lawmakers had to figure out a way to salvage legislation for people upset about vaccines and mask mandates without killing the business deal.

Laine Arnold, a spokeswoman for Gov. Bill Lee said in a statement Friday, “We have heard from a number of businesses regarding proposals, including Ford and other OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), and we have told them to reach out directly to legislators with their concerns.”

The Tennessee Trucking Association also sent lawmakers a letter on Friday urging them to vote against COVID-19 legislation, saying it is a vote against small businesses, many of them trucking companies.

“This legislation creates a bureaucratic nightmare for the trucking industry and creates cause of action against employers who are simply trying to navigate through a national crisis. The legislation is a direct interference by government in the operation of a small business,” the letter says.

Likewise, the National Federation of Independent Business urged lawmakers to vote against the bill because it would create higher costs for businesses as they try to navigate the difficult path of a pandemic.

Nevertheless, the bill prohibits vaccine passports even though some Tennessee companies are requiring vaccines, well in advance of Biden’s federal order taking effect through OSHA. An amendment would allow people to set their own guidelines for their homes.

In addition, it bans forced vaccination of children, ensures the distribution of monoclonal antibodies, stops state and local government resources from being used to enforce federal laws or regulations related to COVID and allows unemployment benefits for workers who lose jobs because they refuse vaccines.

Rep. Jason Zachary, whose harsh comments in Thursday’s committee were removed from the House Republican Caucus YouTube site, continued to rail against what he called a violation of the state Constitution, saying “government has overstepped its bounds.” He also accused President Joe Biden of taking a “full step toward authoritarianism” with a vaccine mandate on companies with more than 100 employees.

A federal judge on Friday, though, blocked Biden’s order for federal employees and the military.

Under Zachary’s bill, which he carried for House Speaker Cameron Sexton, schools could not require face coverings unless severe conditions exist, and then several conditions would have to be met, including reasonable accommodations for disabled children. Severe conditions are defined as the governor having declared a state of emergency and an average 14-day rolling COVID infection rate of at least 1,000 new infections for every 100,000 residents in a community.

Private schools, however, would be able to avoid mask mandates, similarly to businesses.

The legislation also gives the state commissioner of health sole authority to set quarantine guidelines for individuals and businesses.

Democratic Rep. Jason Hodges of Nashville said he supported change in the legislation dealing with businesses because of the importance of large and small companies to Tennessee. But he balked at the regulations for masks in schools.

“Why are we placing private businesses ahead of the lives of children?” Hodges asked.

The legislation agreed to in the conference committee also allows exemptions for vaccination requirements, including health-care facilities that receive funds from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, long-term care facilities such as nursing homes and assisted living centers. Home health-care services and in-home nannies also would fall under that umbrella.

Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, whose harsh comments in a legislative committee meeting were removed from the House Republican Caucus YouTube site, continued to rail on what he called a violation of the state constitution.

State prisons and jails also would be able to require masks, and airport authorities, which are under the Federal Aviation Administration, would be exempt.

Entertainment venues would be able to continue requiring proof of vaccine or a negative test result.

The bill presented by Zachary allows exemptions for business, government entities and universities that receive contracts, sub-contracts and postsecondary grants through federal funds. The University of Tennessee-Knoxville is one of the largest employers in Zachary’s Knoxville district.

The legislation contains a severability clause that would keep it intact if one portion is struck down in court. The measure sunsets — or expires — in July 2021.

Gov. Bill Lee did not participate in the special session but made his first comment on it when he tweeted around noon on Saturday, “I commend members of the General Assembly for working to address the Biden Administration’s overreach into our state, our workforce, & our schools. We are evaluating each piece of legislation to ensure we push back on harmful federal policies & do right by Tennesseans.”





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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.

Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.