It is embarrassing to be a Tennessean today — after our GOP-controlled General Assembly members made fools of themselves in a special session to mandate that no one can mandate but them.
Unless of course we are talking about big business — as in Ford or Volkswagen — with plenty of money. Or private schools. Money talks, you know.
Apparently, our Republican supermajority state lawmakers think being politically red talks, too. So they pander to their red-meat base and now, with their Saturday vote, they have almost entirely forbade city or county leaders, government agencies and public schools from requiring masks for residents, employees or students. The original bill also would have restricted mask mandates at private schools and private businesses, too, but those rules were cut after Ford Motor Company and other influential businesses objected.
But what really is embarrassing is that being politically red is so much more important to the majority of our politicians than lives, health and well-being. Being publicly red is more important than public health. Than whether another 16,350 Tennesseans die from the dangerous but preventable COVID-19 and another nearly 1.3 million are sickened with it.
Our lawmakers' foolhardy votes restricting mask and vaccine mandates have essentially transformed school and government mandates from preventive measures to a last resort. If Gov. Bill Lee signs this into law, governments and public schools can enact a temporary mandate for masks only if they are in a county with at least 1,000 new infections for every 100,000 residents over a 14-day period.
That's smart isn't it? Wait until all of the horses are out of the barn before closing the door?
It's important to remind ourselves — because our lawmakers can't seem to get it — that Tennessee is No. 2 in the country still (after being No. 1 for several weeks) in new cases of COVID per capita. Meanwhile, less than half of the state's population is fully vaccinated.
Will Gov. Lee sign this bill? Take it to the bank. Here's what he tweeted Saturday:
"I commend members of the General Assembly for working to address the Biden administration's overreach into our state, our workforce and our schools. We are evaluating each piece of legislation to ensure we push back on harmful federal policies and do right by Tennesseans."
That's more New York strip steak for the state's red-meat base, too, of course. The approved legislation created exemptions for many health care providers if they participate in Medicare or Medicaid. Other exceptions were made for employers with 100 or more workers or contractors whose federal funding would be at risk. Comptroller Jason Mumpower's office was empowered to establish guidelines on what documentation might be required to establish a company's case to seek waivers from the state's mandate against vaccine requirements.
In short, it was a lot political theater with the unfortunate consequence of further dulling the public's concern and understanding of this very dangerous but preventable virus.
How, you might ask, did our local lawmakers vote? With the exception of brave and sensible Reps. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, and Ron Travis, R-Dayton, they all voted yes. Yes to just say no to common-sense prevention. Even the two with nursing backgrounds, Rep. Robin Smith, R-Hixson, and Esther Helton, R-East Ridge. Even the one who owns and operates nursing and senior living homes, Rep. Greg Vital, R-Harrison. Even Republican Sens. Bo Watson, a physical therapist, and Todd Gardenhire, a wealth manager who should understand the impact on businesses. (Democrat Yusuf Hakeem was not present for the vote, which came after 1 a.m. Saturday.)
Gardenhire tried to turn it back on businesses for expressing stances against the mandate on mandates too late.
"Where were they the last couple of months?" he asked. "It's very important those people take a stand, but they should have been taking a stand a long time ago."
So much baloney, so little time. Where was Gardenhire and the General Assembly when BlueCross BlueShield, one of Chattanooga's largest employers with about 6,400 workers, gave its front-line staff six weeks to get vaccinated or seek accommodations for a religious or medical objection to the shot? In early October the insurer terminated 19 for refusing. That doesn't qualify as taking a stand weeks ago? Our lawmakers weren't paying attention to any but their loudest, reddest contributors and supporters.
It's worth noting, too, that these lawmakers — the same ones who cheered Gov. Lee for his July halt of extra jobless relief that was part of Biden's pandemic aid — also approved a provision allowing employees fired for refusing vaccination to collect unemployment benefits.
That provision, by the way, was a direct result of the BlueCross action — the one Gardenhire and others didn't see as business taking "a stand."
Taken as a whole, this special session and its result were as baffling as embarrassing.
Dr. David Aronoff, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told The Tennessean that limiting mask mandates was like forbidding firefighters from combating a blaze until after it engulfed a house. Or ordering beach residents not to evacuate until a hurricane makes landfall.
"I think we have to guard against our own hubris," Aronoff said. "There was a time when the Titanic was felt to be an unsinkable ship."
Clearly it was not unsinkable. Nor is Tennessee — especially with this partisan, feckless leadership.