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Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signs new limits on COVID-19 restrictions

Published: Nov. 12, 2021 at 9:53 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - New COVID-19 laws are now in effect in the state of Tennessee.

Governor Bill Lee signed bans on mask and vaccine mandates Friday.

Before he inked the new legislation, Dr. Katrina Green, an emergency room physician in Nashville, delivered a petition with more than 700 signatures to the state capital in a last-minute effort to convince Lee to veto the bills.

“If these big government politicians want to micromanage how I do my job, saving lives, then they might as well set a quota for how many people have to die,” Green said.

Thirty Democratic state lawmakers also sent a letter to Lee, pleading for a veto.

“This marks a substantial shift from historical precedent in Tennessee, where we have respected the ideal of limited government and enacted bipartisan solutions to protect public health,” they wrote.

The Southern Christian Coalition also expressed outrage over this legislation.

“Even Governor Lee himself said there were concerns and issues with these bills that would need to be changed in January’s legislative session,” said Rev. Gordon Myers, retired ECLA pastor and tri chair of the Tennessee Poor People’s Campaign. “I can’t understand why the governor would sign something that has gotten opposition from so many across the state, will cost the lives of Tennesseans, and that he has publicly stated is problematic.”

Despite the pleas of doctors, Democrats, and pastors, Lee signed the bill that bans mask mandates by governments and public schools unless the virus transmission rate is dangerously high. Private schools and businesses can still require masking up.

Because of a federal court ruling late Friday, and active lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Lee’s previous mask order along with Tennessee’s new mask law, students attending school in Shelby County must still mask up.

“If the federal court was convinced by the medical evidence that medically vulnerable, disabled children were going to be endangered unless you allowed a universal mask mandate, it’s hard to see how that would change if we were talking about an executive order versus a state law,” said University of Memphis law professor Steve Mulroy.

Other bills that are now laws include:

  • Banning governments and businesses from mandating the vaccine for employees or customers
  • Making workers eligible for unemployment benefits if they quit their jobs because of a vaccine mandate
  • Shortening the length of a governor’s emergency declaration from 60 to 45 days
  • Allowing school board elections to be partisan

Lee allowed the bill that removes the power of local health departments, like the Shelby County Health Department, during states of emergency to become law without his signature. The General Assembly’s fiscal review committee warned lawmakers that this law jeopardizes $2.5 billion in federal funding.

“I understand and appreciate the General Assembly’s concerns over the exercise of certain local authority during the pandemic,” wrote Lee in a letter to House Speaker Cameron Sexton. “However, this bill requires significant updates to account for the non-pandemic functions of public health departments. 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. Meanwhile, however, I am allowing House Bill 76 to become law without my signature.”

Rev. Don Jones, pastor of Sycamore Tree United Methodist Church in Maryville, and a member of the Southern Christian Coalition said he’s deeply disappointed in the governor. He took exception to the COVID laws and is especially upset about the school board election law.

“Not only am I worried about legislation that hamstrings the efforts of public health officials and doctors to save lives, the book of Romans teaches Christians that as far as it depends on us, we are to live at peace with everyone,” said Jones. I wish that Governor Lee was more committed to uniting us than further dividing our communities with this law.”

Legislation that drops “Memphis” from Memphis Regional Megasite where Ford wants to build its multi-billion dollar truck plant was also passed during that special session.

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