FILE - Bill Lee

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee talks with House Majority Leader William Lamberth, R-Portland.

(The Center Square) – Tennessee lawmakers will return to Nashville on Aug. 10 for a special session to consider legislation to provide COVID-19-related liability protections for health care providers, businesses and schools.

Gov. Bill Lee signed a proclamation Monday afternoon calling for the legislative special session.

“It is now more important than ever that Tennessee businesses, hospitals, churches and schools have COVID-19 liability protection,” Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said in a statement. “The last thing small business owners, pastors, doctors and school superintendents need to worry about are frivolous lawsuits which would further impede their ability to do their jobs in this difficult time.”

Tennessee schools and businesses reopening amid the pandemic remain open to lawsuits. The state’s business community and several education organizations have asked Lee to call a special session for liability protection legislation to be considered. Lee granted protections last month to health care providers by executive order.

The House and Senate debated a safe harbor liability protection bill earlier this summer but did not agree on the final language and adjourned without passing it. Both chamber speakers committed to working to pass such an immunity bill when the Legislature reconvenes next week.

“We are looking forward to coming back and finishing the people’s business to increase access to tele-health services, and to protect businesses, churches, academic and health facilities from baseless lawsuits during the ongoing pandemic,” House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said in a statement.

“I am committed to working deliberately and efficiently with Gov. Lee, Speaker Sexton and all members of the House and Senate to pass legislation on these issues and get our members back home quickly and safely,” McNally said.

The General Assembly also will consider legislation to expand telehealth services in Tennessee and laws governing Capitol grounds and surrounding areas. Protesters have assembled on Legislative Plaza across from the state Capitol for more than 50 consecutive days.

“I am very appreciative of the call to strengthen existing laws against those who deface property, who escalate peaceful protests into acts of aggression and those who seek violence towards law enforcement and judicial members,” Sexton said.

The Tennessee Constitution prescribes the scope of extraordinary sessions of the Legislature to be limited to the call of the Governor, so no further issues will be discussed.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, criticized the narrow scope of the governor’s call on Twitter on Monday evening, saying that there is much more for the General Assembly to do to respond to the coronavirus crisis.

“It’s irresponsible and more than a little tone-deaf of [Lee] to call the legislature back for a special session without addressing the full scope of unprecedented challenges folks are facing across our state,” Yarbro tweeted.

“Tennessee just suffered our worst month of the pandemic," Yarbro said in another tweet. "We’ve had 110,000 confirmed cases, almost 1100 deaths, and there’s no clear strategy to reverse the community spread happening across the state. But that’s off limits in the narrow special session called by the Governor.”

Legislative Administration has confirmed 10 cases of COVID-19 among legislators and staff, including at least one legislator. Social distancing and sanitation procedures have been in place in the Cordell Hull legislative office building since March, and both speakers have encouraged vigilance in preparation for the special session. Some legislators have called for additional precautions to be implemented in advance of a special session.

“Our staff members and visitors are required to wear masks in common areas, and they’re temperature checked, so I think that it would be hypocritical and counterproductive for members not to have to wear a mask as well,” Democratic Caucus Chairman Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, said last month during a virtual news conference. “We don’t want our special session to be a super-spreader event.”

Staff Reporter

Vivian Jones reports on Tennessee and South Carolina for The Center Square. Her writing has appeared in the Detroit News, The Hill, and publications of The Heartland Institute.