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Tennessee House panel draws fire for asking witnesses to remove COVID-19 masks

NASHVILLE — A Republican-led Tennessee House panel is drawing criticism for asking that witnesses who testify before it first remove their COVID-19 masks before speaking.

The move was requested by Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, on Tuesday during the Joint Government Operations Committee’s Commerce, Labor, Transportation and Agriculture Subcommittee.

“I will remind committee members as well as members of the audience that we do not take full written minutes, the video … that’s posted online serves as our minutes,” said Ragan, who rarely is seen wearing a mask in the General Assembly.

Ragan said “we have witnesses before us that do not have name tags in front of them and are wearing masks. Therefore my motion would be to, while the witnesses are testifying, that they be asked to remove their masks.”

That drew concerns from Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Memphis Democrat who invariably wears a mask in proceedings as well as in legislative hallways.

“I want to make sure that we allow for those who may have a medical consideration, that we don’t compel them to remove their masks,” Hardaway said.

That led to a motion, which was adopted, that excluded people 60 and older as well as those with physical conditions that leave them vulnerable to the potentially deadly coronavirus not having to remove their masks.

Various state officials who came before the panel, an oversight committee that looks at various state agencies’ actions in areas such as rule promulgation, all removed their masks when speaking. Several who spoke told the Times Free Press afterwards they did not mind removing their masks because they were at least 6 feet apart from the nearest person.

In the full Government Operations Committee on Wednesday, Chairman Martin Daniel, R-Knoxville, softened the language, telling Knox County Health Department officials that “if you wish to remove your mask, we ask you to go ahead and do that.”

Again, people coming before the committee to offer testimony did remove their masks, although several put them back on when they weren’t speaking.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville later criticized the requests, telling the Times Free Press that “I think it’s time to put aside the unscientific nonsense that Rep. Ragan and others are pushing, which suggests you shouldn’t wear masks and that COVID is not a big deal.”

Stewart said that view “should have gone long ago.”

Hardaway said in an interview that he raised the issue because “I thought it was unnecessary. I have my mask on, it’s always on. Obviously they don’t have a problem hearing me because they asked me to be quiet. I think we could do better when it comes to respecting the medical science on this virus.”

Speaking later with the Times Free Press, Chairman Daniel said, “I prefer that the witnesses remove their masks so that we can see who they are. You know, all of our meetings are being video recorded, and I think it’s important for us to see who they are for the record.”

But it’s not a mandate, Daniel said, noting “the clerk has expressed the opinion that we should not mandate that masks be removed and only request that they remove. So that’s how things are from this point forward.”

Daniel said some panel members are hard of hearing, and it’s difficult sometimes to hear what someone is saying when they’re wearing a face mask.

“I think it’s a reasonable request, you know, but if someone has significant health concerns, we are saying keep it on,” Daniel said.

Asked whether some witnesses may feel they need to remove their masks given that they’re in front of a legislative panel with power over their agency, Daniel said, “Sure. That’s what I would do. I think it’s a reasonable request, you know, but if someone has significant health concerns we are saying keep it on.”

Ragan defended his request, saying “my motion and the request today were completely separate from any issue or ideology. The point is, we do not maintain written minutes. The video of our meeting is serving as minutes. When we have people in front of us without name tags and if you recall, that was in the motion, there’s no way for someone who’s looking at them to be able to identify them with their face covered.

“So the purpose is to create a clear set of minutes or record, if you will, wherein people who are speaking can be identified,” Ragan said.

“I can’t see your lips moving right now,” Ragan told a reporter. “If I weren’t standing here within earshot, I couldn’t tell it was you talking. So having the face present when they are talking, you can see who is speaking. And that is important for an official record.”

Moreover, Ragan stressed, presenters “were socially distanced, so there is no violation of the rules there.

“If you can’t social distance, the mask is suggested.”

Ragan added that his motion on Tuesday was “good only for that subcommittee, it’s a rule good only for that meeting.”

Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, a committee member, agreed, then added, “You can have some trouble hearing. It helps me tremendously be able to see them actually speak, to understand what they are saying.”

Ragan, a former fighter jet pilot, said “like the good senator here, I spent a lot of years around jet engines. So my hearing is not what it probably would be otherwise. So I avail myself of being able to see lips move to ensure that I understand what’s being said.”

While Tennessee committee and Senate and House floor proceedings and debates were videotaped during the 2000s, for decades the sound of their proceedings were on old-fashioned audio recordings that had no images. Attorneys and even judges listen to them in an effort to reveal legislative intent on legal issues.

Doug Kuffner, spokesman for House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said that all House committee rooms operate under the same protocols and procedures.

“While our rules do not mandate masks for those who share testimony before a committee, we are continuing to work with health care professionals and taking additional precautions to protect the health and safety of all who attend these meetings.”

That includes clear partitions for legislators who sit on the dais in committee as well as constant cleaning of the tables, microphones and controls for the witnesses who testify, Kuffner said.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.


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