Governor to sign COVID-19 bill but seek tweaks in 2022

Gov. Bill Lee said Wednesday he will sign the COVID-19 omnibus bill passed in a recent special legislative session. (Photo: John Partipilo)

This article was written by Sam Stockard of Tennessee Lookout.

Gov. Bill Lee said Wednesday he will sign the COVID-19 legislation passed by the General Assembly in its special session but plans to push for changes in 2022.

After a Veterans Day ceremony on the Tennessee Tower Plaza, the governor told reporters he was to meet with Lt. Gov. Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton to discuss potential alterations that could be made when the Legislature returns to Nashville in January. He said, nevertheless, he plans to sign the legislation because he agrees with its main premise: a response to President Joe Biden’s order requiring companies with more than 100 employees to order vaccines or negative COVID-19 tests.

Gov. Bill Lee said Wednesday he will sign the COVID-19 legislation passed by the General Assembly in its special session but plans to push for changes in 2022.

Lee specified provisions surrounding hospitalization visitation, saying he wants to make sure COVID-19 patients have family in room at the end of life. He also touched on maintaining the authority of the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration to handle any vaccine regulations, although those could put it in conflict with the federal OSHA and possibly lead to a takeover of the state agency.

Lee did not respond directly when asked if he plans to seek a change in the private right of action provision, which could lead to companies being sued by employees if they require vaccines or negative COVID-19 tests.

In addition, he said he will ask for changes in “any other things we will bring up and go line by line to make sure that we feel good about the consequences of the legislation.”

The National Federation of Independent Business urged lawmakers to oppose legislation that could lead to lawsuits against businesses before the special session started. It still wants changes to be made when the General Assembly reconvenes.

“We agree with Gov. Lee that some of the specifics need to be looked at in the upcoming regular session, such as ensuring no federal takeover of TOSHA,” NFIB Tennessee State Director Jim Brown said. “We’re also encouraged many legislators continue to say they’re interested in addressing aspects of the bill that are a concern for Tennessee’s small businesses. We’re working to identify those aspects, but expect they’ll include protecting TOSHA, as well as a review of certain broad definitions in the bill and the new private rights of action that could put a small business out of business.”

Lee said the business community is obligated to work with the Legislature and express concerns about bills.

“We’ll see how that develops over the next months and … we’ll work with them to make sure we have the right outcomes in this legislation,” he said.

Despite a downturn in COVID-19 cases, Tennessee continues to struggle with the disease. The Department of Health reported 1,114 new cases since Tuesday, for a total of nearly 1.3 million since March 2020 and 45 more deaths for a total of 16,601. Hospitalizations dipped by 16, but the state still has 748 residents being treated in hospitals for COVID-19.

The COVID-19 bill lawmakers wound up approving in the early hours of Saturday, Oct. 30, was vastly different from the bill that went through committees. After a secret meeting, the House and Senate passed a conference committee report that allowed business mask mandates but prohibited public school mask requirements except in severe cases; gave the comptroller authority to approve waivers from vaccine prohibitions for companies and other entities that receive federal contracts and grants; and set up provisions for visitation of COVID-19 hospital patients.

This article is republished by permission from Tennessee Lookout is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Tennessee Lookout maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Holly McCall for questions: Follow Tennessee Lookout on Facebook and Twitter.