Universities to buses: Tennessee COVID law exemptions sought

Friday, November 12, 2021, Vol. 45, No. 46

NASHVILLE (AP) — Universities, transportation agencies and the operator of a national laboratory are among those landing exemptions to a new Tennessee law that strictly limits or prohibits most government entities and businesses from implementing COVID-19 prevention mandates. For some, approval was almost immediate.

Six of the 19 entities that submitted requests Monday — the first day to apply — were granted exemptions to the new law's stringent requirements. 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. Exemptions also are allowed if groups can show they would lose federal funding by complying with the state law, which conflicts with policies implemented by President Joe Biden's administration.

Early exemptions have been given to Vanderbilt University, the University of Tennessee system, University of Memphis, East Tennessee State University and UT-Batelle, which operates Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Crockett County Ambulance Service also was approved, though state officials noted that certain Medicare and Medicaid providers are already exempt. Other medical providers also applied.

Comptroller Jason Mumpower's website doesn't list approval yet for the Tennessee Public Transportation Association, which applied on behalf of the state's 26 public transit agencies. The Tennessee Association of Utility Districts also is awaiting word.

The new law tasks the comptroller's office with vetting requests for exemptions, which are granted for one year and renewable for another.

While applications stream in, the law has stirred a fight in K-12 schools. Under a federal court ruling, several public school districts are continuing to require masks in the classroom. However, Williamson County Schools, the district attended by a plaintiff in the lawsuit, eliminated a mask mandate Monday.

Gov. Bill Lee signed the measure into law on Friday. On Monday, the University of Tennessee dropped its COVID-19 mask requirements across all campuses, save for the UT Health Science Center, which runs clinical settings. On Tuesday, the chancellor of the flagship Knoxville campus announced the mask mandate would return for most buildings on Nov. 22.

Universities have noted that they have to require certain levels of COVID-19 vaccinations as federal contractors, while allowing medical or religious exemptions.

The University of Tennessee said it had $742 million in federal funding in the 2020 fiscal year, making up 28% of its overall budget. The university said the vaccine mandate applies to employees working on or in connection with covered federal contracts, or at the same location as those workers. To exclude a location from the mandate, an institution would have to "affirmatively determine" that none of its employees subject to vaccine requirements are likely to be there while working under federal contract, the university said.

"If we receive the exemption (to the state law), you will hear directly from your leadership as to how the federal executive order may apply to your campus or institute," University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd wrote to employees Monday.

East Tennessee State University is keeping its indoor mask requirement. The school determined it's required as a federal contractor, adding that "it is simply impossible for us to implement a mask policy at the individual level." The school has said it's still assessing the "magnitude of impact" from the vaccination order for federal contractors.

The University of Memphis, which also has a mask requirement, concluded that "as a federal contractor, we are required to provide proof of vaccinations for all employees."

Vanderbilt said in its exemption application that it is a federal contractor under the vaccine mandate. Since the school is private, Vanderbilt doesn't have to drop its mask mandate under the law. Vanderbilt has been requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for its students and workforce, with religious and medical exemptions.

Local transit agencies face their own federal COVID-19 prevention requirements and receive federal funding. The Tennessee Public Transportation Association said there is a federal requirement that people wear masks in bus stations, on buses, and elsewhere related to public transportation.

UT-Battelle, the nonprofit running Oak Ridge National Laboratory, also applied for an exemption. The organization has been locked in a court fight over implementation of its vaccine mandate as a federal contractor.

UT-Battelle spokesperson Morgan McCorkle said the organization was already permitted to keep requiring masks as an entity that operates on "property owned, managed, or secured by the federal government" and faces a federal mandate. She said UT-Battelle needed the exemption to require proof of vaccination as a business.