NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee is facing a lawsuit over Republican Gov. Bill Lee’s decision to let counties issue certain orders to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, with a particular focus on their authority to require people to wear masks.
The group Citizens for Limited Government and Constitutional Integrity, also known as Tennessee Stands, and two individuals filed the lawsuit Monday in Davidson County Chancery Court. Lee is the defendant in his role as governor.
The lawsuit claims a state law dealing with the governor’s powers during an emergency violates sections of the Tennessee Constitution, including provisions about the separation of powers.
A recent opinion by the state attorney general cites the law in describing the governor’s ability to delegate duties during an emergency.
The governor’s office did not immediately respond a request for comment on the lawsuit.
Lee signed an executive order early last month allowing 89 of the state’s 95 counties to decide whether or not to require face coverings in public. Six larger metro counties with locally governed health departments already had the ability to implement their own COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates, under Lee’s previous orders.
Lee has called the mask option for local governments a “targeted approach” that “ensures we protect both lives and livelihoods and safely keep our economy open in Tennessee.”
The GOP-led Legislature has put together a panel to look into the governor’s emergency powers.
Alberto Gonzales, a former U.S. attorney general and current dean at Belmont University’s law school, told those lawmakers last week that “it’s not really a question as to whether or not Gov. Lee, does he have the have the authority to do what he’s done. I think perhaps a better use, with all due respect, of the committee’s time, is to look at what limitations should there be.”
Meanwhile, four University of Tennessee at Knoxville students are facing disciplinary proceedings under current COVID-19 safety restrictions.
In a message posted online Monday, Chancellor Donde Plowman wrote that three students hosted off-campus gatherings with no social distancing or consistent mask use, and a fourth indicated they knew they were COVID-19 positive but left self-isolation to gather with others off campus.
“If the facts reported to the university are accurate, these students will face at least suspension from the university, and potentially greater penalties,” Plowman wrote.
The chancellor has previously warned that students face punishments as stiff as expulsion if they are “irresponsible” in hosting big parties, if they won’t cooperate with COVID-19 contact tracing or if they don’t complete forms documenting their self-isolation.
Also, the Shelby County Health Department said schools that learn of COVID-19 cases must notify parents, families, staff and other at-risk students. The health department will also begin to regularly distribute the number of cases of children who contract COVID-19 by school district.
The county contains the Shelby County Schools system, which includes Memphis schools and has about 100,000 students. Several Shelby County municipalities also have their own school system.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new confirmed cases in Tennessee did not increase over the past two weeks, going from 1,896.86 per day on Aug. 10 to 1,408.57 per day on Aug. 24.
While most people who contract the coronavirus recover after suffering only mild to moderate symptoms, it can be deadly for older people and those with existing health problems.
Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.
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