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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, right, speaks with reporters about vaccine distribution problems in the state's most populous county on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Adrian Sainz)

NASHVILLE — It's fast approaching decision time for Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee as a raft of bills passed by his fellow Republicans in the legislature last week begin arriving on his desk, measures intended to rein in COVID-19 precautions from businesses as well as federal and local governments.

The main bill, an omnibus measure which seeks to weaken or even eliminate vaccine requirements by businesses and government, makes it tougher for schools and local governments to impose mask requirements and much more. It was sent to Lee's office on Tuesday, legislative records show.

"Our teams are evaluating that, every piece of that bill, and they're briefing me on it on a daily basis," Lee told reporters Tuesday. "There's a lot to it, and we're looking at multiple aspects of that to make sure everything is as it should be."

Once a bill arrives, Lee has 10 days — excluding Sundays — to sign or veto each bill or allow it to become law without his signature.

"I think that what we're seeing is a response by the legislature, specifically to the mandates and particularly mandates from the federal government," Lee said. "When you have government overreach from the federal government, then you have response to that, and that's what's happened here."

But while GOP lawmakers rattled their swords at the Biden administration and its planned requirement for employers with 100 or more workers to impose COVID-19 vaccination requirements, they also went after state and local government policies, public school systems and boards as well as the state's six locally governed and appointed county health departments, including Hamilton County's.

Republicans have bristled over mask mandates and closure of businesses, especially in Shelby County and Metro Nashville. School board mask mandates there rankled GOP lawmakers as well.

The issue has been more muted in Hamilton County, which allowed parents to excuse their children from a mask mandate even before Lee issued an executive order requiring all school districts to offer that same option to parents.

One of Republicans' measures ends local appointments of the health director in the six counties. If it becomes law, the county mayor would submit a list of nominees to the state health commissioner who would select one of them or ask a mayor to submit more. In Hamilton County, the head of the health department handed over the decision to impose mask requirements and closures to County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who called the shots.

The bill approved by GOP lawmakers no longer blocks all mask requirements as originally planned. But it does say governmental entities and public schools may only require masks when a county has at least 1,000 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the previous two weeks. It's a rolling 1% average with the 1,000 figure needing to be met every two weeks. Critics say it is too high a standard. The bill also requires locals to offer religious and medical exemptions.

State or local governments entities such as schools and even private businesses could no longer require proof of COVID-19 vaccination despite President Joe Biden's expected rule requiring vaccinations or weekly testing for entities with 100 or more workers.

Republicans backed off from their efforts to block employers from issuing mask mandates. That came after Ford Motor Co., which is building a new $5.6 billion operation in West Tennessee, as well as Volkswagen in Chattanooga and General Motors warned masks were what has allowed them to remain open during the pandemic.

Other provisions still have businesses concerned.

Language allows contractors whose federal funding would be at risk to apply to state Comptroller Jason Mumpower's office for a waiver from the state provision against vaccine requirements. Mumpower is to establish guidelines on what documentation is required to establish the company's case. The approved legislation also created exemptions from the ban on vaccine requirements for many health care providers if they participate in Medicare or Medicaid.

In response to a question about how he as a businessman feels regarding the restraints some bills place on private employers embodied in some of the bills, Lee, who headed a large home-and-business maintenance firm, said the question would better be posed to those currently operating the family-owned company.

Still, he acknowledged in response to a reporter's question, "I'm looking at this legislation to see the specifics of that and how it interacts with business.

"But there's a real balance there, listening to the people — the people includes businesses, they include individuals, they include groups. So that's the process that's happened here," Lee said.

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

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