Tennessee House Speaker Sexton balks at masks, but Legislature to take other COVID-19 precautions

Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, addresses Tennessee House of Representatives members after being sworn in as House Speaker during a special session Friday, Aug. 23, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, addresses Tennessee House of Representatives members after being sworn in as House Speaker during a special session Friday, Aug. 23, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton told lawmakers Tuesday masks won't be required during 2021 sessions because their effectiveness is disputable, yet both the House and Senate are taking other steps to stem COVID-19 as the state's 112th General Assembly convenes.

Among the new measures, an antibacterial mist will be sprayed in the Senate and House chambers in an effort to quell the virus, according to lawmakers briefed by Sexton. It is expected to have a chlorine-type smell.

In addition, acrylic barriers between members' desks will be extended in the House, and those who enter the chamber will have their temperature checked and scanned into a computer rather than taken with a handheld thermometer as in the past. Also, Days on the Hill are being canceled, legislative receptions are expected to be stopped, and the number of interns will be cut in half, limiting them only to those required by statute, according to legislators who sat in on the call with Sexton. Visits to legislators' offices in the Cordell Hull Building will have to be scheduled as well.

Sexton's office did not respond to questions about his statement on masks or increased precautions. The Senate Speaker's Office also declined to confirm extra steps such as the antibacterial mist.

But Democratic lawmakers confirmed Tuesday that Sexton made the statement in discussing the House's COVID-19 policies and protocols for the coming session, which starts Jan. 12, followed by a special session on education starting Jan. 19.

Some legislatures nationwide are meeting remotely while most are set to start this month without mask mandates, even though about 250 legislators nationally have caught the virus and seven have died, according to an Associated Press report.

Legislators who sat in on the Tuesday call with Sexton said he told them members won't be mandated to wear masks because there's not enough scientific proof showing they help stop the spread of the virus.

"It was an odd statement. It was more that there's still evidence out there that can dispute whether they're effective or not," said state Rep. Darren Jernigan, an Old Hickory Democrat.

Jernigan, who is confined to a wheelchair and wary of the virus, said he doesn't agree with Sexton's assessment, noting if two people wearing masks come into contact, the chance of spreading the virus goes down dramatically.

Jernigan said of Sexton, "Let's be frank. His politics, his side of the aisle, they're not going to go for that anyway. He knows that."

He noted, however, that Sexton believes more Republican members of the Legislature will be wearing masks during this session, because one, Rep. David Byrd of Waynesboro, has been hospitalized for a month and on a ventilator while struggling with COVID-19. Byrd came down with the illness after holding a gathering for the House Republican Caucus this fall.

Yet another caucus member, Republican Rep. Mike Carter of Ooltewah, was hospitalized with double pneumonia and was on a ventilator in late summer. Carter could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Other members of the Legislature, including Republican Rep. Kent Calfee of Kingston, Democratic Rep. Bill Beck of Nashville and House Minority Leader Karen Camper of Memphis caught the virus in 2020 and recovered.

Camper's office said Tuesday she is worried the session could be "a super spreader event" as members travel back and forth from their home districts. Even though the Legislature is taking precautions such as adding acrylic barriers and limiting visitors, Camper, who still feels the effects of the virus, believes a mask requirement is needed.

"Masks reduce the spread of the virus, and until everyone can receive vaccines they will be an important part of opening up our businesses, our schools, our government and our society," Camper's office said in a statement.

Gov. Bill Lee has declined to issue a statewide mask mandate but has given county mayors authority to make county requirements. He contends about 70% of the state is under a mask mandate. First Lady Maria Lee contracted the virus, too, but the governor has tested negative and been quarantining.

The Associate Press reports 250 legislators nationally have had the coronavirus and seven have died.

Although some state legislators doubt the effectiveness of masks, the World Health Organization says masks used in concert with social distancing and hand washing are effective in helping stop the viral spread.

A study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information through the National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health suggests that masks worn by people who are not sick could be beneficial, especially since COVID-19 can be transmitted before symptoms show. Masks also can be beneficial in universal and health care settings, the study found.

Even though Democratic lawmakers described the new precautions to be taken, Sexton spokesman Doug Kufner said the same protocols and procedures the House used last year will remain.

"We will continue to be flexible as we monitor new information and data related to the pandemic," Kufner said in a statement.

The House allowed limited numbers of the general public and lobbyists to attend its committee meetings and floor sessions during three separate periods in 2020 after new pandemic restrictions were put in place. The Senate, on the other hand, refused to allow the public to attend its meetings and floor sessions.

No decision has been made on public access in the Senate for the 112th General Assembly, according to Adam Kleinheider, spokesman for Lt. Gov. Randy McNally.

"The Senate chamber was reconfigured last year to ensure members are seated six feet apart. That will continue," Kleinheider said in a statement. "As has been the case since the beginning of the pandemic, Lt. Gov. McNally will take appropriate steps to ensure a safe working environment for staff and members based on current conditions and guidance."

Some Democratic senators such as Sara Kyle of Memphis and Brenda Gilmore of Nashville have worn plastic masks along with cloth masks during floor sessions since the pandemic started.

State Rep. Bo Mitchell of Davidson County contends masks should be worn by all lawmakers. So far, legislators have not been eligible for vaccinations unless they are health care workers or fall into another priority category.

"Everyone has to respect one another and care for one another in this most dangerous time period of the pandemic. We have an over 20% positivity rate in the state of Tennessee right now," Mitchell said. "We've had more deaths than World War I and World War II combined in this state, and I think it's time to do everything we can to be safe until we can get vaccines in people's arms."

Some 300,250 doses of the vaccine have been distributed to Tennessee, but only 152,516 have been administered. Even so, Tennessee is among the leading states nationally in vaccinations.

Tennessee is reporting 617,649 cases since March with 3,246 current hospitalizations and 7,267 deaths. More than 5.68 million tests have been conducted, with a 20.85% positivity rate, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.

Read more at tennesseelookout.com.