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Upcoming Special Session to address mask, vaccine mandates

Face shield and mask by Hispanolistic via E+ via Getty Images.jpg{p}{/p}
Face shield and mask by Hispanolistic via E+ via Getty Images.jpg

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Tennessee state lawmakers will return to the capitol next week to take on what many republicans are calling “overreaching healthcare mandates,” mostly related to masks and COVID vaccines.

This call for a special session of the General Assembly was signed by over two thirds of the members of both chambers, according to a press release from the state.

It will begin on October 27th, 2021 at 4:00 p.m.

The call letter for next week's special session says lawmakers will consider acting on federal and employer mandates for masks and vaccines.

Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton says in a state press release that he’ll strive to preserve the individual choices and liberties of Tennesseans.

Speaker Sexton says Tennesseans have voiced significant concerns over what he describes as the unconstitutional and burdensome mandates being imposed upon them.

Also in the release, Lt. Governor Randy McNally described what he hopes this special session will accomplish.

“The Covid-19 crisis — and how various institutions have adapted and reacted to it — has created new and unique legislative challenges. This is an opportunity to make the General Assembly’s voice heard on issues regarding masks, vaccines, executive power, and federal mandates," says McNally.

But, Democratic senator Heidi Campbell says the special session is an unfortunate waste of time.

“Unfortunately, we are listening to an outraged minority, and quite frankly are being held hostage by an outraged minority, who are insisting that we address mask mandates and vaccine requirements,” says Representative Campbell. “We have a responsibility to our community to act in the best interest of our community, and that’s what masks and vaccines are about.”

Representative Campbell says this special session is the last thing Tennesseans need right now.

She says it’s a distraction from other important issues including healthcare, education, and getting people back to work.

Leading up to this session, Republican lawmakers made a request to the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration (TOSHA)--the state agency charged with keeping workplaces safe.

They asked that TOSHA withdraw an emergency rule issued over the summer, which requires certain COVID safety protocols for the healthcare industry.

These include rules around wearing masks, social distancing and paid sick time for those who get COVID.

“The 5% that gives me pause is the requirement that they pay employees 14 days. That’s gonna be a huge burden on especially our small employers,” says State Senator Mike Bell during a government hearing earlier this week.

But on Tuesday, TOSHA denied the request from lawmakers, saying they lacked authority to withdraw the rule, which is guided by federal law.

The agency also said it did not want to risk putting state authority in jeopardy, thus inviting additional federal oversight.

The Biden administration has already threatened to revoke the power of some states to regulate their own workplace safety if they refuse to adopt federal rules on healthcare mandates, which are meant to keep people safe.

This comes as more far-reaching vaccination and testing rules are slated to come down from the federal government soon.

Back in August, Gov. Bill Lee was asked by House Republicans for a special session to take on "misdirected" COVID-19 mandates.

At the time lawmakers took issue with school mask mandates and requirements of COVID-19 vaccines.

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Meanwhile, Gov. Lee extended his order allowing parents to opt-out of school mask mandates, despite multiple federal judges blocking the order amid lawsuits.

“I’ve been incredibly disappointed by the rulings from federal judges who’ve chosen to legislate from the bench," Lee said. “Parents should be the ones who decide. Parents know what is best for their children and should have the last word on health and welfare for their children."
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