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NASHVILLE — Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury Jason Mumpower announced Monday his office has launched a new website to handle applications from businesses, government entities, schools and employers seeking exemptions from the state's new law that seeks to ban COVID-19 vaccination requirements in many instances.

In response to complaints by businesses, the ban — part of a comprehensive effort by Republican lawmakers to rein in local, state and federal COVID-19 mandates — was approved Oct. 30 and signed into law Friday by Gov. Bill Lee, also a Republican. The law establishes a process whereby employers can apply to the comptroller's office to seek exemptions if they meet certain guidelines.

Applicants seeking an exemption would have to demonstrate the new law would result in a loss of federal funding and the exemption is necessary to conform to a federally awarded contract, subcontract or postsecondary grant.

Mumpower's office would have to approve any exemptions, which can last up to a year. Mumpower, who is elected by the General Assembly, has already been dubbed by the media and legislators as the "COVID czar."

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Tennessee Comptroller Jason Mumpower.

Qualifying entities can begin the process of seeking an exemption by going to a newly created website, comptroller.tn.gov/covidexemption. The webpage includes program guidelines and some frequently asked questions.

Applicants with questions about the exemption process can contact the comptroller's office at exempt@cot.tn.gov.

The new law includes an effort to bar public schools from requiring masks unless the rate of infections in a community reaches 1,000 or more per 100,000 people over a rolling two-week period. That infection rate has only been reached twice — at the height of the winter and summer surges that killed more than 400 Hamilton County residents in the months that followed.

Before signing that provision into law, Lee had previously issued an executive order allowing parents to opt students out of school COVID-19 mask requirements. But Lee's executive order drew lawsuits from parents and disability advocates who charged it violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. And three federal judges in East, Middle and West Tennessee blocked Lee's executive order in three different counties as challenges were being heard before them.

After Lee signed the comprehensive COVID-19 bill into law Friday, U.S. Middle District Court Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw Jr. on Sunday ordered all parties not to enforce the new law's anti-mask mandate provision and thus allow mask requirements to continue as the case is heard.

"Given the alleged conflict and the possible confusion this creates for schools in Tennessee, pending an expedited hearing, the parties shall maintain the status quo as it pertains to students with disabilities and their federally guaranteed rights as of Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021, prior to the effective date of Tennessee Code Annotated § 14-2-104," Crenshaw wrote, according to The Associated Press.

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

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