Tennessee lawmakers limit COVID-19 restrictions, local health dept. powers

Published: Oct. 30, 2021 at 3:01 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Tennessee lawmakers ended their special session in the early hours of Saturday morning. The session passed sweeping limits to COVID-19 restrictions and severely limited the power of metro health departments, including the Shelby County Health Department.

The Republican-dominated legislature passed bills banning local governments and public schools from requiring masks unless COVID-19 cases dramatically skyrocket.

Businesses, hospitals and nursing homes can still require masks.

Masks are still required by federal order in airports.

Tennessee lawmakers also banned employer vaccine mandates.

However, businesses that contract with the federal government can still require their employees to be vaccinated.

Workers who quit their jobs because of a vaccine requirement will now qualify for unemployment benefits.

Supporters say it’s all about protecting individual rights.

“Even in the face of a health crisis, freedom, individual liberty and the unalienable rights granted to us by God, must be defended, preserved and protected,” said Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville.

Opponents criticized the need for a special session, calling it “hasty.”

They also said it’s not in the best interest of Tennesseans.

“What we’re doing here is throwing fuel on the fire. We are not providing clarity. We’re creating instability and uncertainty,” said Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville.

Lawmakers also put limits on the powers of metro health departments, giving the governor and state health commissioner more power over how those health departments operate during a pandemic.

They gave the governor the sole authority to issue executive orders and to direct county health departments during pandemics.

They also gave the state health commissioner, who’s appointed by the governor, veto power over who can become county health department director.

The county mayor will nominate three individuals to fill the position.

The state health commissioner can approve or reject the nominees or could even decide to appoint someone of his or her own choosing.

Lawmakers also passed legislation allowing school board races to be partisan and approved court-appointed prosecutors to enforce state laws if a local district attorney refuses.

Lawmakers also decreased the number of days a state of emergency can stay in place, from 60 days to 45 days.

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