On Aug. 3, Gov. Bill Lee announced that a special session of the Tennessee General Assembly would convene, on Aug. 10, to specifically address COVID-19 liability protections, telehealth services, and laws governing the Capitol grounds.
Lee’s proclamation stated that lawmakers will meet to act upon legislation concerning four areas:
“As COVID-19 continues to present unique challenges, we feel it is in the best interest of the state to convene a special session to address liability protections and telehealth,” Lee announced.
Lee said that while previous executive orders issued earlier this year provided some liability protection to health care providers, he is asking lawmakers to broaden that protection to other Tennesseans.
“With the coronavirus pandemic continuing to present challenges for our people and our economy, it is now more important than ever that Tennessee businesses, hospitals, churches, and schools have COVID-19 liability protection,” Lt. Gov. Randy McNally emphasized. “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. I am grateful Gov. Lee called this session to address COVID-19 liability and other issues critical to our state. 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.”
Senator Paul Bailey said that at the end of the June session, the senate was unable to pass either the COVID-19 related liability bill or the new telehealth bill, and, after working into the final late-night hours of the session with no final agreement on the language for these bills, the session was adjourned.
“The governor and businesses are asking us to come to an agreement and pass a bill that will protect churches, schools, and businesses from having a frivolous lawsuit filed against them,” Bailey said, explaining that the premise behind the bill is two-fold in that it is not going to be possible to say exactly where a person may have contracted the COVID-19 virus and that the decision to choose to attend these places, and the right to not attend, ultimately falls on individuals. “I think ultimately this will give our schools the opportunity to be operational and better meet the needs of Tennessee’s students.”
While the first two items on Lee’s list are COVID-19 related, the third item addresses another issue that has arisen over the past few months: citizens’ rights to protest.
“I have repeatedly supported the right of Tennesseans to engage in peaceful assembly and protest, and many peaceful protests and demonstrations have occurred across Tennessee in recent weeks, including in and around the state capitol grounds, but some protests on and around the capitol ground have also resulted in vandalism and defacement of public property, overnight camping on public property in violation of state law and other risks to public safety,” Lee’s proclamation read.
“We will defend your right all day long to peacefully assemble. Our constitution gives you the right to petition government for redress of grievances, but when you start defacing property or bring harm to a first responder [EMS, Police, highway patrol, fire department] that’s different,” Bailey said, explaining the language that will be included in the bill. “This will enhance the criminal penalties against a person who brings harm to a first responder or defaces property. In addition, if you are arrested at a protest for misbehaving, you will have a 12-hour hold placed on you at the jail.”
Bailey noted that until this bill is passed, people being arrested for illegal activity at a protest are leaving jail immediately, giving them the opportunity to return to the wrongful activity.
The decision to call a special session for the Tennessee Legislature has been met with approval by Tennessee lawmakers.
“I agree with Gov. Lee’s decision to call a special session,” House Speaker Cameron Sexton said. “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. 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. The House is committed to working with Gov. Lee and his administration, as well as Lt. Gov. McNally and the Senate to safely, efficiently, and effectively address these timely issues for the benefit of Tennessee and Tennesseans.”
“It shouldn’t take more than three days to reach the agreements on these items,” Bailey said. “We are just trying to serve the people of Tennessee and provide help where it is needed.”