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Tennessee Got It Right

The Tennessee state legislature's new bill is a death warrant for pandemic-era policies and a welcome return to the old normal.

The Volunteer State is officially the first to take a decisive step toward ending the pandemic. On October 30, the Tennessee state legislature passed a bill to end mask mandates in the state, to protect individuals from public or private vaccine mandates, and to provide unemployment benefits for employees who leave their place of work due to a vaccine mandate, among other provisions.

The bill was passed out of conference committees in both the state house (58-22) and state senate (25-6) Saturday during a special legislative session convened to counter the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for businesses, which has yet to be elucidated in more than a press release. In addition to making mask mandates largely toothless, the bill also prevents a governmental entity, school, or local education agency from mandating that a person receive a COVID-19 vaccine, and prevents private business or schools from requiring proof of vaccination as a condition to access their premises, facilities, products, or services. Private businesses, government entities, and schools are also prohibited from taking any adverse action against a person to compel him or her to provide proof of vaccination if the person objects to receiving a Covid-19 vaccine for any reason. Medicare and medicaid providers are exempt from this mandate.

In its final version, which awaits the governor’s signature to become law, the bill is softer on private businesses than originally, according to local news reports, after Gov. Bill Lee’s office confirmed Ford Motor Company and other manufacturers with plants in the state expressed concerns with some of the proposals being considered. The lawmakers agreed to exempt certain industries—including health care facilities, food distribution or consumption facilities, and entertainment venues—from the vaccine and mask mandate bans. Private businesses reliant on federal money can also apply to the state to be exempt from the ban.

Notably, however, the plan takes significant steps toward stopping the spread of federal Covid mandates by reasserting the preeminence both of state power over federal power and of the duty of the state legislature over the use of health bureaucracies to make prudential public health decisions in consideration of all factors (not merely biologic ones). The bill includes prohibitions which severely curtail county health departments’ power, including stopping health officials from quarantining Tennesseans who merely came in contact with an individual with Covid-19 but remain asymptomatic. The bill adds that “a local health entity or official, mayor, governmental entity, or school does not have the authority to quarantine a person or private business for purposes of Covid-19,” only the state commissioner of health.

The legislature certainly could have gone further to end the unending malaise—for example, by not making carveouts for protected industries—but it’s still a remarkable step forward, made even more so by the fact that it came from the legislature itself, not merely by the blunt tool of a governor, as in most red states that have attempted similar strides. The state—toward which, of course, as a born-and-raised Tennessean, I am irreparably biased—is an example of precisely the only way that we return to real life from the biomedical security state that has weighed so heavily on the American people these past 20 months.

Tennessee got it right; which state will be next?

about the author

Carmel Richardson is the 2021-2022 editorial fellow at The American Conservative. She received her B.A. from Hillsdale College in political philosophy with a minor in journalism. She firmly believes that the backroads are better than the interstate, and though she currently resides in Northern Virginia, her home state will always be Tennessee.

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