Tennessee's metropolitan health departments could face an impending battle with state lawmakers next session over the authority to make localized decisions when health emergencies arise.
According to the governor’s office, Tennessee law gives six county health departments, including Shelby County's, the autonomy to issue their own health mandates. That’s why Gov. Bill Lee exempted these areas from his order this week that lifted COVID regulations on businesses and crowds in the rest of the state.
But Republican Cameron Sexton, Tennessee's House Speaker, is pushing back. His office told several media outlets that independent health entities have too much decision-making authority. He intends to challenge it when lawmakers reconvene the General Assembly next year.
At a press conference Thursday, Shelby County Health Department Director Dr. Alisa Haushalter said urban areas have traditionally needed and been granted broader discretion when it comes to public health. It’s just been more visible to the public during the pandemic.
“It’s important that the local metros have the ability to act quickly when there is any threat to the public’s health,” she said, noting that the department has had to shutter businesses in the past due to other outbreaks, namely Legionaires' disease. “So that’s why we’ve historically had that level of autonomy.”
Health officials are using that autonomy as they consider further lifting local business restrictions next week as new COVID metrics, including the number of positive cases, improve. Last week, bars reopened after months of closure. New rules could allow them and restaurants to stay open later than their current 10 p.m. close, health officials said Thursday. The number of people allowed at sporting events could also be expanded.
Throughout the pandemic, Gov. Lee has refused to issue a statewide mask mandate but repeatedly said that counties and municipalities should be allowed to issue their own should the need arise. On July 3, he signed an order allowing Tennessee's 89 rural counties, which fall under the state health department's purview, to issue local mask requirements as needed.