FILE - Tenn. Gov. Bill Lee July 2020

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee answers questions during a news conference Wednesday, July 1, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn.

(The Center Square) – Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said Wednesday he plans to sign a sweeping COVID-19 omnibus bill passed by the Tennessee Legislature before Friday's deadline.

“There are some issues that we need to work through with the General Assembly, and I have spoken to both speakers about that,” Lee told reporters. “In fact, we are meeting about that even today.

“But my plan is to sign that bill.”

Lee said he and his team have not decided how to proceed on other legislation passed during the General Assembly's COVID-19-focused special session.

The 21-page omnibus bill included rules on how government entities cannot force private businesses to institute mask mandates or COVID-19 vaccination mandates, and private businesses cannot take action against an employee for not receiving the vaccine and cannot compel an employee or visitor to show proof of vaccination.

“The greatest concern we have, and the reason this came about, is the federal mandate for requiring businesses to vaccinate their employees,” Lee said. “That created the General Assembly’s response.

“As you know, the governor has had a response, the attorney general has responded. We want to make sure that the particulars of this bill are the appropriate ones but, on balance, I agree with what’s in the package and that’s why I want to sign it.” 

Lee said one issue he had with the bill was a portion on hospitals and visitations, saying the language needed to be adjusted during regular legislative session in January. Lee said the intent of that section is to allow a patient to have visitors at the end of life despite COVID-19 considerations.

“As Speaker Sexton has previously said, the hospital visitation language is intended to help families support their loved ones who are nearing or in end-of-life scenarios," said Doug Kufner, spokesperson for House Speaker Cameron Sexton. "If there is a need for clarification, the speaker will take a closer look at this portion of the bill when the legislature returns in January.”

Lee said he and staff are combing through the legislation with the goal of avoiding unintended consequences.

“Lt. Governor McNally is proud of the work done by all members of General Assembly during the COVID-19 special session and believes a strong majority of Tennesseans share that pride," said Adam Kleinheider, communications director for Lt. Gov. Randy McNally. "The legislative process is by its nature very fluid, and Lt. Governor McNally is always open to making improvements, clarifications and technical adjustments.

“Lt. Governor McNally had a productive meeting with Governor Lee and Speaker Sexton and will continue working with them in January on this and other issues,” Kleinheider said.

The governor said he did not speak directly with the Ford Motor Company about its concerns regarding some of the proposed sections of the omnibus bill before it was adjusted by the Legislature. He did say the bill, which had sections that were opposed at points by many business groups, did not mean the state was not business friendly.

“We are one of the most business-friendly states in America, and that’s why companies from all across America are moving here,” Lee said. "And we continue to be that. We have a good working relationship with the business community and we will continue to work on that going forward.”

Lee said his concentration was on the omnibus bill, and he and his staff now will be looking at the six other bills passed during the special session, including a bill that would allow county political parties to make school board elections partisan.

Ben Torres, assistant executive director and general counsel at the Tennessee School Boards Association, said that TSBA "supports nonpartisan elections as this type of election ensures educational policy is made by those whose undivided attention and interests are devoted to education."

Lee also said he wanted to make sure the legislation would allow for Tennessee’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (TOSHA) to maintain control of its responsibilities in the state, something that could be threatened if Tennessee does not follow federal OSHA guidelines related to workplace COVID-19 mitigation measures.

Staff Reporter

Jon Styf is an award-winning editor and reporter who has worked in Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin, Florida and Michigan in local newsrooms over the past 20 years, working for Shaw Media, Hearst and several other companies.