KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — On Friday, several Knoxville leaders gathered at a luncheon for the Tennessee Valley Fair kick-off, and some of those leaders were state and federal lawmakers.
6 On Your Side caught up with a few of those legislators to find out their thoughts on President Biden’s announcement from Thursday night, in which he laid out his plans to vaccinate the majority of working adults against COVID-19.
U.S. Congressman Tim Burchett, R- District 2, was at the luncheon. He believed Biden was out of his mind making the mandates.
Burchett doesn’t believe requiring all federal employees to get vaccinated, and businesses with 100 or more employees to get vaccinated or weekly COVID-19 tests, is constitutional.
“He needs to go back and research his constitution. There’s a reason there’s a separation of powers and there’s states rights in this country, and I believe he’s completely ignoring that,” Burchett said. He added he’s already heard from first responders and union workers who plan to resign if the mandates go into effect.
He also believes the mandates for businesses with 100 or more employees don’t make sense.
“What if you have 99 employees? And so what if you’re a major corporation and you can just divide everything up into 99 employees, which is what they’ll do. It’s a joke. What he’s doing is hurting the guy who’s really struggling and is right there on the edge,” Burchett said.
Burchett wasn’t the only lawmaker to think the mandates were an overreach of the government.
State Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, said he doesn’t believe the executive branch had made such an overreach most people’s lifetime.
“You go through the legislative process. Right, wrong or indifferent. It’s a totally different conversation. We’re talking about the executive overreaching well beyond what the constitution allows them to do,” Zachary said.
State Rep. Sam McKenzie, D-Knoxville, acknowledge the mandate was a huge step to take by the president.
“It is. This is a big deal. Alright. This is a game-changer, in terms of what the president’s authority is and can do, but again, as I said, it’s the right time,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie said it’s the right step if it helps end this pandemic.
But Zachary believes it’s a game-changer that could lead to more government control.
“In terms of the bigger picture, this is much bigger than a vaccine. It just happens to be the vaccine we’re talking about. Again, what’s the next executive order or rule going to force us to do? This is not a political issue. I don’t see how this becomes partisan,” Zachary said.
McKenzie said it shouldn’t be a partisan issue. He said Republicans are making it so by saying these mandates are more than an action in the name of public safety.
“We’re not talking about you know a tax here, or even like a Medicaid expansion. This is a sickness. People are dying every day,” McKenzie said.
Zachary said GOP lawmakers are working together, asking Gov. Bill Lee to call a special session. He said they want to make sure these mandates won’t touch Tennesseans.
“We’re taking steps on the state level. There’s much conversations about what our steps are going to be in rejecting the federal mandates,” Zachary said.
On the other hand, McKenzie said a mandate should not have been needed. But, since many of the population hasn’t received their shots, McKenzie said it’s a good move for the safety of people in the workforce.
“It just makes sense, if the government is giving you money, that they should be able to ask you and your employees to, in this case, to take the vaccine,” McKenzie said.
Zachary said he’s been getting messages left and right from business owners worried about the mandates. He’s working with an attorney to figure out what their next steps could be, but they don’t know what those look like since OSHA hasn’t written the policy just yet.
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6 On Your Side reached out to a few large employers in East Tennessee.
Dollywood leaders had the following statement:
Yesterday’s announcement by President Biden is under review by OSHA. Until we know what the final order will include, we will not speculate. Until then, we will continue to operate under our current COVID protocols.Pete Owens, Vice President of Marketing and Public Relations
Those current protocols can be found here: Dollywood COVID-19 protocols.
The University of Tennessee is one of the largest employers in Knox County. A spokesperson for UT said this:
The UT System and campuses have been reviewing the Executive Order. We know that as a federal contractor, it does apply to us, and we are working to learn more and determine next steps. We will provide more information as it is available.Tyra Haag, Director of News & Information
Maryville College in Blount County already had a vaccine mandate in place for all staff and students. According to spokesperson Chloe Kennedy, the college sent out an update just this week to staff and students about the vaccine requirement, saying a personal preference exemption will no longer be available in Spring 2022.
Burchett had some pieces of advice to workers who might be impacted by these mandates: don’t listen to advice from lawmakers, and reach out to your HR contacts and your attorney for any questions or concerns regarding what employers are allowed to do.