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State Rep. Mark Hall, R-Cleveland, left, talks with Rep. William Lamberth, R-Portland, before a meeting of the COVID-19 Committee on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee's General Assembly met for a special legislative session to address COVID-19 measures. / AP photo by Mark Humphrey

NASHVILLE — Tennessee public schools, businesses and locally run county health departments face new limits on their ability to implement COVID-19 restrictions after the Republican-controlled General Assembly approved new mandates curbing their authority early Saturday.

If signed by Gov. Bill Lee, bills approved would end local public schools' and local governments' authority to issue mask mandates.

But Republican leaders of the GOP's House and Senate supermajorities bowed to intense pressure from private sector employers and dropped their efforts to bar larger businesses from imposing mask requirements on workers.

As to vaccines, the bill contains language prohibiting a wide range of requirements.

"A private business, governmental entity, school, or local education agency shall not compel or otherwise take an adverse action against a person to compel the person to provide proof of vaccination if the person objects to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine for any reason," it says.

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There are exceptions, however, given pending federal vaccine mandates for employers with 100 or more workers.

Language was changed to allow 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.

Government entities and public schools can't require masks unless COVID-19 case rates rise above 1% in a community. That would be at least five times more infectious than the current rate in Tennessee, where the pandemic has killed more than 16,300 people.

The omnibus bill also included a provision allowing employees fired for refusing to receive a COVID-19 vaccination to file and collect unemployment benefits. The issue received widespread attention earlier this month when Chattanooga-based BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee fired 19 workers who refused to get vaccinated. They were among some 900 public-facing employees told to get vaccinated.

An additional provision allows Lee to suspend the would-be law in the event of an emergency.

Representatives approved the conference committee report on a 57-22 vote. Among those who voted yes were Chattanooga area Reps. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, Esther Helton, R-East Ridge, and Greg Vital, R-Harrison.

House Finance Committee Chair Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, voted no, as did Rep. Ron Travis, R-Dayon, with both citing the impact on businesses. Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, was not present for the vote, which came at 1:15 a.m. Saturday.

Senators approved it on a 22-4 vote. Senate Finance Committee Chair Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, both voted yes.

"I commend members of the General Assembly for working to address the Biden administration's overreach into our state, our workforce and our schools," Lee wrote on Twitter Saturday. "We are evaluating each piece of legislation to ensure we push back on harmful federal policies and do right by Tennesseans."

Top legislative Republicans said they were pleased with what they accomplished.

"The House and the Senate came together. We're going to protect Tennesseans from vaccine mandates," House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said after lawmakers adjourned their three-day special session about 1:15 a.m. Saturday. "We were consistent all the way through on masks in schools."

The measure against mask mandates only applies to public schools. Private schools were excluded, with GOP leaders justifying that because they aren't supported with state tax dollars.

Hakeem was critical of the GOP's actions across multiple fronts, saying Republicans have "dictated" to local communities and local school boards what they can and cannot do.

"It was a power grab to satisfy part of their base," Hakeem said in a telephone interview Saturday.

On Friday, Lee's office confirmed that Ford Motor Co., Volkswagen and General Motors had all raised concerns with the governor's office about GOP lawmakers' efforts to do away with companies' ability to mandate that their workers don masks.

Republicans ultimately agreed to exempt a number of businesses from their general ban on COVID-19 vaccination requirements. The list includes most health care facilities and some businesses including entertainment venues. Workers and patrons are to be offered a choice of offering proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.

Federal contractors and other businesses reliant on federal funding will be able to apply to the Tennessee Comptroller's Office and provide documentation that their operation would be harmed if subjected to the general prohibition.

The state's labor commissioner, Jeff McCord, had warned that the federal government could revoke Tennessee's authority to oversee workplace safety enforcement if lawmakers refused to comply with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration's COVID-19 rules about vaccinations.

"I hope COVID goes away, but it's probably going to be around for a little bit," Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, told senators. "This is our attempt as a state and state government to do the best we can to put this awful chapter behind us."

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, blasted GOP colleagues on multiple fronts, including barring public schools from imposing mask mandates while allowing private schools to use them.

"I just think it's pretty outrageous that we're basically creating two classes of people," he said.

By virtue of their financial resources, Yarbro said, parents able to send their children to private schools will have a more secure environment.

"But if you can't afford private school, you don't get the same protections," he said.

Hazlewood was among a significant group of Republicans voting no on the main COVID-19 bill.

"I still had some grave concerns about the rights of business," she said. "Don't get me wrong, I think it was very wrong for there to be a mandate or an executive order from the president requiring businesses of 100 employees or more to require vaccines. I think it's just as wrong to tell businesses that they can't require them. I feel strongly that the people running the businesses should make the decision based on their situations."

She said there was a lot of conversation about the impact on larger employers.

"But to me, it's even more impactful for our smaller companies in Tennessee, which are still the backbone of our commerce," she said.

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

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