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Tennessee halts exemptions to COVID law after court rulings

December 1, 2021 GMT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee on Wednesday halted dozens of exemptions that allowed businesses and public entities to require people to take COVID-19 preventive measures in spite of a state law severely limiting them, citing court rulings that blocked some of President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates.

State Comptroller Jason Mumpower’s announcement — at least for now — strips away protections for some private organizations to continue requiring proof of vaccination, and for some government entities to keep vaccination requirements or mask mandates. One of the two recent court rulings applied to federal contractors, and the other applied to certain Medicaid and Medicare health care providers.

For now, even hospitals will be prohibited from requiring workers to show proof of coronavirus vaccinations, the Tennessee Hospital Association said it has advised its members. The state law includes a carve-out for health care organizations to require proof of COVID-19 shots, but only when they are under a “valid and enforceable” Medicare or Medicaid rule. One of the court rulings “effectively eliminates” the exemption for hospitals, the association said.

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The change reopens the threat of lawsuits against entities that had just been told they were exempt from the Tennessee law. The state began issuing exemptions in mid-November, with 69 of them approved to date.

The exemptions were granted for groups that could show they would lose federal funding if they complied with the state law, which conflicts with policies implemented under the Biden administration. Given the recent court rulings against the Biden mandates, however, the comptroller concluded that his office “can no longer find that compliance” with the state law “would result in a loss of federal funding.”

Mumpower’s office noted that things can still change, and his office is still accepting and processing applications for exemptions.

“It is important to note that these exemptions may be reinstated if the injunctions are lifted, and it is legally permissible,” the comptroller’s office said.

Mumpower’s office pointed to a preliminary injunction against the vaccine requirement for federal government contractors and subcontractors handed down in the Eastern District of Kentucky, and applying to Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio.

The comptroller’s office also cited a federal preliminary injunction against the health care workers vaccine requirement issued by a judge in the Western District of Louisiana, who noted the scope would be nationwide. A similar decision came from a federal judge in Missouri this week.

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The move drew praise from Republican House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who tweeted that the comptroller was “protecting Tennesseans’ rights.”

Under the new state law, Tennessee now largely bars governments and businesses from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccinations, and only lets schools and other public entities require masks in rare, dire public health situations, with limited exceptions.

Infractions are punishable through lawsuits, which people can file to recover compensatory damages and reasonable attorneys’ fees if they think an “adverse action” was taken against them under a mask or vaccine requirement. That can range from “denying the person employment, privileges, credit, insurance, access, products, services, or other benefits,” to affecting the “compensation, terms, conditions, locations, rights, immunities, promotions, or privileges” of an employee.

The new avenue to sue was a main driver of opposition to the law from two influential business groups: the National Federation of Independent Business of Tennessee and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

Some big companies with COVID-19 vaccine requirements had received exemptions in Tennessee. AT&T announced in September that 90,000 employees in the Communications Workers of America union would be required to be fully vaccinated by Feb. 1, “unless they get an approved job accommodation.”

Citing the court action, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee announced late Tuesday that it had “paused our efforts to require proof of vaccination from all employees,” said senior vice president Dalya Qualls.

“At the same time, we know COVID-19 is not going away and so we’re still encouraging vaccination as the best way for our employees to protect themselves and their loved ones,” Qualls said in a statement.

Among the large universities that had succeeded in landing exemptions to the law were Vanderbilt, the University of Memphis, East Tennessee State University, Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee system.

University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd told employees Wednesday that a mask requirement would be lifted immediately and vaccine requirements under the federal mandate would be lifted while the legal process continues, saying the moves are meant to comply with the state law.

“As new strains of COVID-19 continue to appear, I strongly urge all UT employees who have not been vaccinated to once again consider getting vaccinated,” Boyd wrote.

UT-Battelle, the private nonprofit that runs Oak Ridge National Laboratory, was still evaluating the impact of the court order and the comptroller’s notice alongside the U.S. Department of Energy, said UT-Battelle spokesperson Morgan McCorkle. McCorkle said the organization can keep requiring masks, since businesses are exempt from that part of the law.

As a federal contractor, UT-Battelle has been locked in a court fight over implementation of its vaccine mandate.

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Associated Press writer Kimberlee Kruesi in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.