I spent most of my free time the weekend before Easter drafting a five-page email to the state Senators on the Commerce and Labor Committee and the better part of the workweek repeatedly calling their offices. The committee was set to vote on “The Medical Non-Discrimination Business and Consumer Act” or SB0320, a bill that would both absolve businesses of enforcing health policy and classify barring service based on mask and vaccine requirements as discrimination under state law. For someone like me who suffers from debilitating claustrophobia (or the dozens of other disabilities mask wearing exacerbates), the bill was a lifeline. I would like to say that I had better things to do in the lead up to Holy Week, but I didn’t. My church was under orders from the state diocese to require masks during services, so no Maundy Thursday like the rest of my congregation. Godzilla vs. Kong would have to wait as would every other movie in a theatre. A manager of the Mt. Juliet Target an hour from my rural town had already told me six months earlier upon seeing my maskless face, my masked wife, and my button identifying my disability, “There are more customers who are uncomfortable with you not wearing a mask than people like you, so you should really try to wear one for others, and we want to make sure you know that,” after I pulled up the store’s official COVID policy on my phone when her underling tried to bar us from picking up an order we initially placed to avoid this very exchange.
I had high hopes the committee of eight Republicans and a Democrat would hear my plea, especially since I organized volunteers for an East Tennessee member’s first campaign during my early-aughts stint as UT’s College Republicans president. While I pipe dreamed, the committee deferred the bill three times to its final resting place next session in January 2022. I received nary a response to my missives except for the unexpected arrival of one committee member’s email rundown six weeks later that regurgitated the fecklessness I’d spent April following hourly. Earlier this week, the Republican legislature grabbed headlines for requesting a special session to tackle the deluge of school mask mandates across the state, a request Governor Bill Lee denied by issuing an executive order that gave parents the authority over their children’s health in a battle over conservative alpha status between the branches. We could have avoided such politicking entirely had incumbent Republicans done their job in the first place.
When Senator Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) introduced the bill last January, most of his Republican colleagues all but ignored its existence, especially in the wake of the national press’s expected cooption of it as the latest fodder for its gleeful pandemic Southern slash fiction. As many a staff member told me during my phone blitz, the senators were pro-business and would never vote for a bill that would put limitations on commerce. At the same time, “the science” has now proven anti-maskers are near universally Republican, putting the eight party members on the committee in a precarious position that has since grown to a fever pitch. Their only play was to punt the bill far enough in time that a child could be conceived, born, and, wrapped in its own face diaper before they had to take it up again—those with mask-related disabilities be damned in the meantime. Surely by that date, vaccines would be widely available, masks would be a relic, and the bill could either be rendered obsolete or passed as a victory lap that incumbents could tout on the campaign trail with the aid of emotional distance. Then came delta in the midst of constitutional conservative group Tennessee Stands’s Freedom Matters Tour and Republican Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles’s primary challenge to Lee that continues to gain steam even after Donald Trump’s recent inexplicable endorsement of Governor Milquetoast.
While legislation involving mask and vaccine policies does pit economic deregulation against individual freedom, such mealymouthed conservative stances toward COVID policy fail to understand that businesses do not set out to create barriers to entry for their customers but are attempting to balance consumer interests and the force of law innate to governmental policy whether in the form of a local mask mandate or guidance from a bureaucratic entity. If mask requirements were overwhelmingly popular with consumers, major retailers would not have dropped them in a parade of press releases minutes after the CDC changed its guidance last May (after all, it’s far more difficult for a customer to sue for negligence when a business’s policies conform to government guidelines). Likewise, businesses’ reticence to reinstate mask rules as the delta variant surges amid the CDC’s vague revisions gestures toward some overwhelming internal market research that indicates the cost of offending the fearful pales in comparison to the profits gleaned upholding personal choice—which already beleaguered businesses in vaccine passport cities like New York, Los Angeles, and New Orleans are about to find out. Unfortunately, few Republicans not named Ron DeSantis realize that lending credence to private mask mandates endorses the subtle forms of government control they otherwise rail against in sound bytes—a blindspot visible at all levels from the inaction of the Tennessee Senate’s Commerce and Labor Committee to the CPAC conference’s embarrassing defense of Hyatt for booting conservative mega-influencers DC Draino and Fleccas from the event last March for not wearing masks in the hallway.
Few bills possess the conservative bona fides of Hensley’s medical freedom legislation. Under the proposed law, businesses in a city governed by mask-obsessed officials or—thanks to Governor Lee’s orders—an unelected board of health—could simply ignore the rule if they thought it would hinder commerce. Conversely, those who cannot wear or do not feel comfortable in masks could have access to cultural institutions like Nashville’s The Frist or Parnassus Books that never dropped their requirements because such virtue-signaling directly appeals to their target demographic (disability rights end where a liberal’s fear begins). The same remains true for venues like The Bluebird Cafe and City Winery that now require a vaccine card or negative Covid test for entry. However, such is not the state we live in. When a governor abdicates his power to local mayors in times of emergency and leaps from proclaiming the legality of schools to issue mask mandates to executive ordering said power out of existence in the span of a week all while spending $4 million dollars for a pro-mask PR campaign straight from The Onion, the tenets of conservative philosophy were never part of the conversation. With much of the state legislature playing Lee’s game of semantics, its members share culpability for the patchwork of mask policies further dividing the state. As not-ready-for-primetime politicos have already begun weaponizing Metro Nashville Schools’ decision to defy Lee’s mask order to further capitalize on the rural/urban divide, a dutiful citizen would do well to remember who allowed the district’s legion of Biff Tannens to get a hold of the sports almanac in the first place as primary season gets underway.