UTC drops mask mandate despite exemption from new Tennessee law reining in COVID-19 restrictions

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Students walk through campus at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga between classes on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn. UTC has opted to do away with its mask mandate, despite being exempted from a new law signed by the governor last week that reins in masking requirements statewide.
Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Students walk through campus at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga between classes on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn. UTC has opted to do away with its mask mandate, despite being exempted from a new law signed by the governor last week that reins in masking requirements statewide.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga will stand by its move to not require face masks on campus, despite the state granting the university system the ability to do so.

The university system was granted an exemption from provisions in a new state law barring government entities from issuing mask and vaccine mandates to protect against the spread of COVID-19, which has killed 16,740 Tennesseans.

On Friday, Gov. Bill Lee signed the sweeping bill, which was put forward by Tennessee Republican lawmakers to rein in COVID-19 mandates.

The bill is a response to - and a contradiction of - executive orders signed by President Joe Biden in September requiring contractors that receive federal funds to comply with mask requirements and a Jan. 4 deadline for COVID-19 vaccination.

The Tennessee comptroller's office on Monday launched a new website to allow Tennessee businesses, government entities or schools that receive federal funding to seek an exemption from the state law.

Exemption approval prompted the University of Tennessee in Knoxville - a federal contractor - to reinstate its mask mandate Tuesday, but UTC Chancellor Steve Angle said in a statement Wednesday that the Chattanooga campus would remain without a mask and vaccination requirement, at least for now, with the exception of a mask mandate remaining in facilities that provide health care services.

"The University of Tennessee System has received an exemption that allows UTC the flexibility necessary to implement the requirements of the executive order as required by federal contracts. At this time, UTC does not have new contracts from the federal government that require us to mandate the vaccine for employees or masks on our campus. However, UTC may eventually receive a contract that imposes the requirements of the executive order. We will communicate any changes at that time," Angle said in a statement.

UTC sophomore Cora Yarborough said on Tuesday that she was "very apprehensive" that the mask requirement was removed and still plans to take precautions despite being fully vaccinated.

"While most of the students in my class are still wearing their masks, I still think that in a couple weeks it will turn into only a few wearing them," Yarborough said. "With the flu season already about to start, it makes me worried about students going home for the holidays and then bringing back illnesses to class next semester."

Sophomore Maddie Myers-Osband echoed Yarborough's sentiments.

"It's really worrisome to see this especially right in the middle of flu season. I've seen more and more people get sick around me recently, and lifting the mandate now seems counterproductive," she said.

Senior Kelsei Ivery said that if she was able to vote one way or the other, she'd vote to keep the mask mandate in place until the pandemic further improves.

"I feel we should all do our part," Ivery said. "I can't force you on the vaccination - though there are still precautions you can take such as washing your hands throughout the day, covering your mouth, keeping your distance. Most importantly, you need to wear a mask when in a large crowd or a public place."

Comptroller spokesperson John Dunn said as of Tuesday the office was in the process of approving at least 25 exemption applications that will allow entities to move ahead with federal mask and vaccine mandates, with five others already approved in addition to UT, according to the website:

- East Tennessee State University.

- University of Memphis.

- Vanderbilt University.

- Crockett County Ambulance Service.

- The company that manages and operates the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Certain health care providers that receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement are already exempt from the state law, and a spokesperson for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee - which is a federal contractor and is requiring all workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by early December - said the insurer has applied for an exemption.

UT Knoxville Chancellor Donde Plowman said in a statement Tuesday that the university was preparing to reinstate its mask requirement on Monday.

"Until that time, please make whatever personal choice you think is best while being respectful of your students and fellow employees, whether they choose to wear a mask or not," Plowman said, noting "we are waiting until Monday because the Tennessee attorney general has filed a lawsuit arguing that the federal vaccine mandate is unlawful and unconstitutional. Court rulings in that lawsuit or other legal proceedings could come by the end of this week and may provide additional clarity as to what UT Knoxville, as a federal contractor, will be legally required to do."

(READ MORE: Tennessee, six other states challenge Biden administration's vaccinate-or-test mandate in federal appellate court petition)

Mary Beth Ikard, spokesperson for Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, said in an email that Kelly issued an executive order on Friday dropping the city's face mask requirement for vaccinated visitors and employees.

"The city attorney's office is still evaluating the legislation's impacts on city operations; the mayor issues executive orders on Fridays," Ikard said.

Hamilton County Schools on Nov. 8 lifted its face mask requirement for students, staff and visitors and issued a statement Tuesday outlining how the new law will impact public schools in the state.

Schools cannot mandate COVID-19 vaccines and can only require masks if the 14-day average of new COVID-19 infections exceeds 1,000 per 100,000 residents. Hamilton County has only reached that threshold during the peak of the winter 2020 and summer 2021 surges. However, parents or guardians may submit a written request for accommodations under the American with Disabilities Act, the statement says.

"If the accommodation is granted, the school is required to place the person in an in-person educational setting with other individuals wearing a face mask," according to the statement.

In addition, public school districts and universities can no longer enforce an individual quarantine for COVID-19, as that authority has been transferred to the commissioner of health.

"As we navigate these changes imposed by the state legislature regarding our COVID-19 response, we will maintain our focus on the education and overall well-being of our students," Nakia Towns, Hamilton County Schools interim superintendent, said in the statement. "The updates included in the omnibus bill shift all decision-making authority away from local leaders. If anyone wants to express their opinion or make recommendations for future policy changes, they should contact our elected and appointed leaders at the state level."

The Hamilton County Health Department, which provides health care services, is the only entity of county government with a face mask mandate still in place.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

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