Tennessee Swiftly Starts Giving Exemptions For Law That Prohibits COVID Vaccine Mandates

Tennessee swiftly starts giving exemptions to a new state law that prohibits a majority of government entities and businesses from enforcing COVID vaccine mandates.

According to the Associated Press, six of the 19 entities that submitted requests Monday, which was the first day to apply, received exemptions to the law's strict requirements. Tennessee restricts governments and businesses from requiring proof of COVID vaccinations, and only allows schools and other public organizations to require masks in rare, dire public health situations. Exemptions are also granted if groups can prove they would lose federal funding by obeying the state law that conflicts with the policies enforced by the Biden administration.

Vanderbilt University, the University of Tennessee system, University of Memphis, East Tennessee State University, and UT-Batelle, which runs Oak Ridge National Laboratory, have all received early exemption. Crocket County Ambulance Service was also approved. However, state officials said certain Medicare and Medicaid providers are already exempt. Other medical providers have also applied.

Approval for the Tennessee Public Transportation Association has yet to be listed on comptroller Jason Mumpower's website. The association applied for the state's 26 public transit agencies, the Associated Press reported. The Tennessee Association of Utility Districts is also waiting for exemption.

The new law has created a struggle in K-12 school. Some public schools are continuing to enforce a mask mandate under a federal court ruling. Williamson County Schools, however, got rid of their mask requirements Monday.

The measure was signed into law by Governor Bill Lee on Friday. On Monday, the University of Tennessee got rid of its COVID mask requirements for all campuses, except the UT Health Science Center. The chancellor of the flagship Knoxville campus announced the mask mandate would return again for a majority of the buildings on November 22.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Tennessee, Laws, Exemption, Vaccine Mandate
Tennessee is swiftly giving out exemptions to a new law prohibiting a majority of government entities and businesses from enforcing COVID vaccine mandates. In this photo, US first lady Jill Biden (L) comforts Adriana Lyttle, 12, as she receives her vaccine at a Covid-19 vaccination site at Ole Smoky Distillery in Nashville, Tennessee, June 22, 2021. Tom Brenner/AFP via Getty Images

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 percent 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.