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Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, listens to a debate on school voucher legislation Wednesday, May 1, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE — The same day Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Ford Motor Co. executives announced last week's agreement to put a $5.6 billion electric vehicle plant in rural West Tennessee, conservative opponents of school mask mandates and federal vaccination requirements rallied in Lt. Gov. Randy McNally's Oak Ridge hometown to pressure Lee and other Republicans into backing their efforts.

The two COVID-19 issues are now attracting McNally's support with Lee's call for a special session for the GOP-dominated legislature to approve $500 million and other incentives that are part of the Ford deal.

McNally, the Senate speaker, had earlier resisted efforts by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Oak Ridge, to persuade Lee to hold a special legislative session to address COVID-19 mandates that are unpopular with the GOP base.

But with lawmakers coming back into session on the Ford incentives on Oct. 18, McNally late last week joined with Sexton to ask Lee for a second special session to address local school mask mandates and employer vaccine requirements pushed by President Joe Biden.

During the rally — posted to Facebook Live and reported by The Oak Ridger — an unidentified man urged the crowd of more than 100 demonstrators to put pressure on Lee, McNally, Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Ken Yager, R-Kingston, and Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, to support a special session on COVID-19.

"Lt. Gov. McNally, we love you. We appreciate you, but do your job," said the man, who from earlier remarks appeared to be from nearby Roane County. "Sen. Yager, we love you. We appreciate the years that you've been doing this. Do your job. There's no more room in this to be silent at this stage, to take the Joe Biden side."

Asked whether the rally in his hometown helped lead McNally to agree to Sexton's push for a COVID-19 special session, McNally spokesman Adam Kleinheider said the lieutenant governor "always appreciates and encourages his constituents to express their concerns through the First Amendment.

"While he did not believe a special session was necessary, he heard from many senators and constituents who thought otherwise. Ultimately, Lt. Gov. McNally did not believe the General Assembly could in good conscience return to Nashville to approve a multimillion-dollar deal with Ford without addressing other concerns expressed by senators and constituents throughout the summer. That is why he is working with Speaker Sexton on a call for an additional special session."

So far Lee has not agreed, leaving the two speakers pursuing a more difficult route to a separate special session, involving lawmakers calling themselves into session via signature gathering from members.

Lee's efforts to act alone on mask mandates — such as an executive order saying parents can opt their children out of any local mask requirements — have run into obstacles. Judges in three parts of the state have blocked his order, in consideration of the rights of families whose disabled children are more susceptible to the spread of COVID-19.

Lee press secretary Casey Black had little to say about the Oak Ridge rally other than to note it had occurred last week.

"Is there something new?" she asked.

Asked Thursday at an event in Dickson whether he would be willing to consider the pandemic matters in his call for the special session, the governor said no.

"This call is limited to Ford," Lee said. "Regarding masks, you know, I've been really clear just like I said a minute ago, I'm disappointed with the federal rulings. But we will approach that issue by defending the law of the state, the law that I created by executive order was that parents should have the option there."

Lee added that "we're going to work with the attorney general to appeal the rulings of both judges, that's the best way forward on the mask issue."

As for the federal vaccine requirement for large employers, Lee said, "We have no, yet, clear definition of the order yet from the president, Biden. But we will push against that order, because I do not think it is a good idea to mandate that businesses should mandate vaccines. So we'll oppose that order when it comes, and the attorney general has already stated such, and we'll be supportive of that."

The federal requirement for vaccines or weekly tests for employees applies to companies with more than 100 workers. Among them are the Y-12 National Security Complex and Oak Ridge National Laboratories, which employ thousands.

Efforts to reach Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, a McNally ally, were unsuccessful Monday.

Briggs, who is traveling in Europe, said in a telephone interview Monday that he was unaware of the ongoing fuss in Tennessee.

"Can we overturn orders from federal judges?" asked Briggs in a Times Free Press interview. "They're talking about employer mandates. Can we order the U.S. Army to not to mandate vaccines of active-duty soldiers? I don't think we can. I don't think the Tennessee Legislature can overrule federal judges.

"And I don't think the secretary of the Army or secretary of defense will say, 'well, I guess we can't do it for the Army.'"

Briggs, a physician, said, "I'm fine if they want to do a special session," adding that he has been saying since March 2020 that he doesn't think vaccines should be mandated by the government because there's too much resistance.

But he questioned Tennessee's ability to dictate employment policies to an out-of-state company or to override the federal government if it says hospital employees must be vaccinated or the hospital will no longer be able to participate in the Medicare program — "which basically means they will have to close," he said.

Briggs said he doesn't see how Erlanger Health System in Chattanooga, Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville and UT Medical Center in Memphis could just say "'OK, we're going to have to close [the] doors.' I don't think we can do that."

Regarding school boards and county health departments issuing mask mandates, Briggs drew a distinction. School boards are elected, he noted. Health departments are appointed.

Still, Briggs said, "I don't think I can even comment because there's too much from a legal standpoint. I'm not a lawyer. Even if I were a lawyer, I don't think you could understand it because some of these things that they're doing, the school boards all have legal counsel."

But that ultimately would be determined by courts.

"And it's because judges disagree is why we have judges in courts," he said.

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

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