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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Governor Bill Lee speaks at the 42nd Annual Chattanooga Area Leadership Prayer Breakfast at the Chattanooga Convention Center on October 26, 2021.

NASHVILLE — When it comes to the art of crafting law, silence sometimes speaks volumes.

During Tennessee's three-day special session on COVID-19 mandates last week, Republican majority legislators placed new restrictions on public schools and other governmental entities, saying no mask requirements can be implemented "unless severe conditions" exist.

But private companies and employers remain free to implement mask mandates.

So how was that done? Simply by making no mention of the issue of mask restrictions in conjunction with private employers in the new code provision.

It began as an effort to accommodate Ford Motor Co., which along with Republican Gov. Bill Lee announced in September the company will build a massive $5.6 billion electric truck assembly and battery plant in West Tennessee.

Ford voiced concerns about the provision and was joined by fellow major automotive manufacturers here including Volkswagen and General Motors. Ford and eventually the other companies — it's unclear whether Nissan participated — contacted Lee to fret and note industrial masks are critical to their processes.

In reaction, Republican lawmakers agreed to exclude them from the mask provision in their omnibus COVID-19 measure. And ultimately, lawmakers also extended that to other private businesses, including privately-operated prisons and then private schools.

Under the new law, pending action by Lee, local governments and public schools would be prohibited from imposing mask mandates unless COVID-19 cases soar to 1,000 people or more per 100,000 people in a county or community.

For comparison, the current state rate is 198 cases per 100,000 people.

Even if cases reach the new threshold rate, school districts would only be able to require masks on an individual school-by-school basis, initially for a 14-day period, which can be extended by additional 14-day periods if conditions persist.

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Staff Photo by Andy Sher / Tennessee business lobbyists pore over details of legislation Friday night that went on to be passed early Saturday morning by the state House and Senate.

A second bill provision would prohibit public schools, governments and most businesses from requiring employees or customers in most instances to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccinations for customers and workers — despite pending Biden administration rules that would do just that for employers with more than 100 workers.

The bill would allow businesses to ask workers to get vaccinated but would not allow them to compel workers in most instances to provide a so-called "vaccine passport" — a card indicating they had been vaccinated. But the provision also allows businesses to ask workers to provide documentation if they have had a COVID-19 test.

The final legislation carves out some exemptions, primarily in response to alarms raised by businesses, health providers and public entities such as universities and other entities such as major federal contractors who fear a crackdown by the Biden administration.

Lee's Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner, Jeff McCord, last week warned Republicans if the bill becomes law it risks drawing in the federal government to take over the responsibilities of his department's Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

McCord noted the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration's fines are higher than the state's. That has businesses worried the federal OSHA is also more likely to hammer local employers for mistakes than his department, which seeks to work to get issues resolved.

The bill allows companies to apply for waivers in the event their federal funding is jeopardized if they follow the new law. It sets up a review process to be established by state Comptroller Jason Mumpower, who would have authority to establish his own guidelines for what evidence would need to be provided in order for health providers and others to seek an exemption to any would-be law.

The legislation has yet to hit Lee's desk, the governor told reporters Monday following his first day of executive agencies' annual budget hearing.

"We've begun the process of looking at it," Lee said. "It will take some time, there's a process, as you know. I will say the legislature in their session was responding to mandates from the federal government in particular and we have expressed our dissatisfaction with that as well."

Much of the agenda on the legislation was driven by Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton and fellow Republican Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Senate speaker. On Monday, they signed the conference committee report on the legislation, House Bill 9077, and Senate Bill 9014.

Once the bills make it to Lee's desk, the governor has 10 days to sign, veto or allow a bill to become law without his signature.

Republican lawmakers also approved House Joint Resolution 9005, which urges Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery to intervene in "appropriate" actions challenging the expected federal mandate as well as initiate litigation if necessary.

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

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