Passed in the middle of the night, here's what these COVID bills mean

Tennessee Capitol building at night.jpeg
Posted at 1:39 PM, Nov 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-02 10:40:20-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Passed while the majority of Tennesseans slept, a slate of COVID-19 bills will now trickle down into different facets of life for those in the state.

The COVID-19 special session lasted three days last week to handle a myriad of issues related to the virus and didn't wrap up until the wee hours of Saturday morning.

Watch: Gov. Bill Lee speaks on bills passed during Tennessee's third special session this year.

Gov. Bill Lee speaks on COVID-19 special session

From that session, the biggest of those bills is an omnibus one, which revolves around masking in schools and whether private businesses can require vaccine cards to enter.

Businesses — like entertainment venues — can also ask for a negative COVID-19 test but customers can provide their COVID-19 card in lieu of a test. Those who rely on federal dollars can also apply to step out of the ban on the vaccine mandate if the law would result in a loss of funds.

While there are currently several school mask mandates across the state, approved legislation now dictates schools must require their principals to determine whether masks would be worn in schools versus the school boards themselves. Mask mandates could only happen during a state of emergency called by the governor and during a time period where COVID-19 infections reached 1,000 new infections per 100,000 residents during a 14-day period.

"It did look like they pulled some punches on things that they tried to take action," NewsChannel 5 political analyst Pat Nolan said. "I did notice they didn't seem to go quite as hard against vaccine mandates as I thought they would. Certainly, I think they found out on the federal level they are probably barking up the wrong tree. But the state legislature likes to impose its power over local governments, and the federal government is in sort of that same position with the states. The legislature doesn't like it when happens to them."

This was all tethered to a bill in the House and the Senate that would originally have allowed employees to receive unemployment benefits if they refused the COVID-19 vaccine. Between both chambers, legislators added 18 amendments to the bill. The fiscal note for the bill labeled it as "not significant."

As brought up through a bill in both chambers, the state's six independent health boards will now have to conform to whatever decisions the state board directs for COVID-19, meaning they can't issue superseding orders. Sen. Becky Massey (R-Knoxville) said in hearings Thursday this would prevent confusion from Tennessee residents. Those six monitor the state's highest populated areas.

"I’m disappointed and angered by the omnibus bill that came out of the Tennessee House and Senate in the early hours on Saturday,” said Rev. Dr. Donna Whitney, at Metropolitan Interdenominational Church of Nashville. “One of the worst portions of the omnibus bill headed to Governor Lee’s desk aims to grant the governor exclusive authority over orders and directives of county health departments. This would give politicians undue power over medical experts when it comes to public health, a dangerous and reckless move. No matter what we look like, no matter where we come from, we all value our health and freedom, which is why we're willing to work together rather than against one another, to do our part to end this pandemic. Instead of doing anything at all to secure the health and well-being of the citizens of our state, the policy that came out of this ‘special session’ further endangers the health, well-being and economy of Tennessee by continuing to ignore medical and scientific expertise.”

Additionally, the legislature opened the door for school board elections to become partisan and would allow for the Attorney General’s office to petition a court to replace district attorneys who “peremptorily and categorically” refuse to prosecute certain laws. This comes on the heels of Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk declaring he wouldn't prosecute MNPS teachers if they require masks in the classrooms. In their Senate committee about the issue, Sen. John Stevens said the issue for the bill went back to Funk not wanting to prosecute low-levels of marijuana possession, dating back to the proclamation in 2020.

"If they [DAs] disagree with the policy of the law, they should run for the Tennessee General Assembly," Stevens said last week.