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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee speaks with reporters Tuesday, April 6, 2021, following speech to the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry. (Photo by Andy Sher/Times Free Press)

NASHVILLE — Calling COVID-19 vaccinations a "voluntary, personal choice," Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Lee announced Tuesday his opposition both to government mandates that citizens be vaccinated and to issuance of "passports" to prove they have been inoculated against the potentially deadly infectious disease.

Hours later, an amended bill to ban the Tennessee state government and agencies as well as local governments from requiring such documentation to obtain services moved through its first House panel — courtesy of an amendment the measure's sponsor said was supplied by Lee's administration.

However, the measure does not include private businesses and entities.

Lee announced in a tweet earlier Tuesday that he was "supporting legislation to prohibit any government-mandated vaccine passports to protect the privacy of Tennesseans' health information and ensure this vaccine remains a voluntary, personal decision."

Speaking with reporters later, the governor said after a speech to the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry that he believes "vaccine passports are a bad idea.

"I do not believe that government should impose vaccine requirements or mandates in any way. And I'm working with the legislature to support legislation that backs that up," Lee said.

Lee joins a number of Republican governors who have voiced opposition to COVID-19 passports, but he is resisting imposing any COVID-19 passport prohibition on businesses. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has issued such an order.

"I certainly hope that businesses follow that same pattern," said Lee, who did not raise the issue of the passports before assembled business leaders. "I don't think it's in the best interests of our state for businesses to impose restrictions and mandates for vaccine. But I also don't think that government should impose itself in the private affairs of business practices.

"So," Lee said, "we're encouraging businesses in that way, but we're not going to restrict them."

On the issue of higher education institutions requiring students, faculty and staff to carry inoculation documentation, Lee said, "I think that private institutions have decisions they make on their own. I think that government-run, government agencies should not have vaccine requirements."

Asked whether he opposed such a requirement at the University of Tennessee, where trustees last November granted UT President Randy Boyd authority to require the COVID-19 vaccines for students across the UT system pending approval, Lee said, "That's right."

UT spokeswoman Melissa Tindell said in a later statement that after the board's November action, the system announced it "would not mandate the COVID vaccine for a variety of reasons.

"In the interest of public health, we strongly encourage all faculty, students and staff to receive the vaccine as soon as they are eligible. The UT System will continue to monitor COVID numbers to determine if additional measures are needed," Tindell added.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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