HOUSTON — President Joe Biden on Wednesday strongly criticized the decisions by the governors of Texas and Mississippi to lift statewide mask mandates, calling the plans “a big mistake” that reflected “Neanderthal thinking,” as his administration tries to manage the pandemic while state leaders set their own plans.
The president said it was critical for public officials to follow the guidance of doctors and public health leaders as the coronavirus vaccination campaign gains momentum.
“The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything’s fine, take off your mask and forget it,” Biden told reporters at the White House. “It’s critical, critical, critical, critical that they follow the science.”
“Wear a mask and stay socially distanced,” he added. “And I know you all know that. I wish the heck some of our elected officials knew it.”
The sudden announcement Tuesday by Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas that he would lift a statewide mask requirement and allow all businesses to operate at full capacity was a surprising development in a state where vaccinations considerably trail the national average, more than 7,000 new cases are being reported a day and, in recent weeks, ominous variants of the virus have appeared.
The decision by Abbott, a Republican, frustrated public health experts and a range of city officials, coming two weeks after a large winter storm collapsed the state’s power grid and left millions of Texans without power or water, potentially fueling the spread of disease.
Still, the move was welcomed by some Texans, particularly those whose livelihoods and businesses have suffered over the past year. “I’m proud to be Texan and this is the first step to bring Texas back,” said Amber Rodriguez, 32, who owns an air-conditioning company in Houston.
Kendall Czech, 26, a leasing agent who moved to Dallas last summer from California in part because of that state’s strict COVID-19 restrictions, agreed. “I think that the governor just gained some guts.”
But for many other Texans, the announcement, framed as long-awaited relief after an exhausting stretch of isolation and hardship, was anything but reassuring for a state that has recorded more than 44,000 deaths and nearly 2.7 million cases. If anything, some said, it would only prolong the misery.
Sylvester Turner, the mayor of Houston, called the announcement a “dangerous” attempt “to deflect from the statewide failure” in handling the storm. Mayor Ron Nirenberg of San Antonio called it a “huge mistake.” Dr. Victor Treviño, the health authority of Laredo, said he feared that the decision would “eliminate all the gains that we have achieved.”
“We know from the science that masks work and that social distancing works,” said Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist with UTHealth School of Public Health in Dallas, who believed that the upheaval of the winter storm, the arrival of new virus strains and the governor’s planned reopening, which goes into effect March 10, would further postpone any return to normalcy. “We have a lot of things going against us right now.”
Since the start of the pandemic about a year ago, states have not taken a unified approach to the coronavirus. Even within states, restrictions have varied widely from one county to the next. At the time of Abbott’s announcement, 12 other states had no statewide mask mandate — a number that grew to 13 when the mandate ended in Mississippi on Wednesday night. South Dakota never had one.
But the decision to reopen Texas, with its 29 million residents, comes at a delicate time in the punishing season of the coronavirus, as public health officials plead with people to not let impatience outrun prudence. With vaccinations steadily rolling out nationwide and the worst of the pandemic appearing now to have an end date, the guidance from health experts and federal health officials has been consistent: Keep your guard up a little while longer.
“Now is not the time to release all restrictions,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a White House briefing Wednesday.
Federal officials have urged people to keep wearing masks, and to double them up. Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser for COVID-19, suggested that masks may even be needed for another year. “When it goes way down, and the overwhelming majority of the people in the population are vaccinated, then I would feel comfortable in saying, ‘We need to pull back on the masks,’ ” he said in a recent interview on CNN.
Neither measurement has been met in Texas. While the tallying of new virus cases and deaths was disrupted extensively by the recent storm, thousands of new cases have been reported every day and the death toll remains high. As of this week, 13% of Texans have received at least one vaccine dose, among the lowest rates in the country. And Houston recently became the first American city to record five of the COVID-19 variants circulating worldwide.
“I don’t know what they’re thinking,” said Ernestine Cain, 52, a home health aide who was picking up a case of bottled water at a distribution site in San Antonio on Wednesday morning. “You still need to give it time. You can’t just cut it like that.”
Clay Jenkins, the county judge of Dallas County, said the governor “absolutely” decided to reopen the state in order to distract residents from their sky-high electricity bills and credit card balances after the storm.
“This gives people something to talk about other than the state’s failure to protect the power grid,” he said.
In an interview with a Texas news station Tuesday, Abbott said he had planned to make this announcement in late February but that the weather and disruptions to the vaccine process had delayed it until this week.
In a statement Tuesday, the governor had defended his decision by saying: “We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans by opening Texas 100%. Make no mistake, COVID-19 has not disappeared, but it is clear from the recoveries, vaccinations, reduced hospitalizations and safe practices that Texans are using that state mandates are no longer needed.”
But that sense of optimism was lost on local officials like Ricardo Samaniego, the county judge of El Paso County, where according to a New York Times database 1 in 7 residents is known to have had the virus.
“We still have mortuaries that are saturated,” he said. “We still have bodies that have been there for two to three months.”
He said the leaders of the six largest counties in the state agreed that Abbott’s decision was premature. But he said he saw no indication that their opinions were sought, which left him frustrated and dejected.
“We were doing so well,” he said. “We had worked so hard.”
It remains to be seen whether Abbott’s decision will trigger a wave of similar decisions by other governors eager to lift restrictions. On the same afternoon as Abbott’s speech, the governor of Mississippi, Tate Reeves, also a Republican, announced he was lifting the statewide mask mandate and rescinding capacity limits on businesses there.
“We continue to suggest that you do the right thing,” said Reeves, who, like Abbott, urged people to continue to wear masks despite the lifting of the state order. The precautions remain the same, Reeves said; the difference is that “the government is no longer telling you what you can and cannot do.”
In a tweet Wednesday afternoon, Reeves acknowledged Biden’s “Neanderthal” comment and pushed back: “Mississippians don’t need handlers. As numbers drop, they can assess their choices and listen to experts. I guess I just think we should trust Americans, not insult them.”
Under the new orders in Texas and Mississippi, private businesses can maintain mask requirements. Many appeared Wednesday to do just that, with Target and Macy’s among the largest to say face coverings would remain mandatory in Texas stores. Masks will be optional for customers in HEB, a popular grocery store in Texas.
Under Mississippi’s order, cities and counties can still impose local mask mandates, while in Texas, a jurisdiction can impose restrictions only if COVID-19 hospitalizations rise above a certain level. And even then, people cannot be penalized by local governments for not wearing masks.
Dr. Mary Carol Miller, a physician at Greenwood Leflore Hospital in the Mississippi Delta, said that even a lightly enforced statewide mask order was helpful, sending the message that the virus was still circulating and that masks were the best protection. Without the order, she saw weeks ahead of more sickness, hospitalizations and deaths in a part of the country where the pandemic has already been devastating.
“The light’s there at the very end of the tunnel, and now we’ve made the tunnel longer,” Miller said. “It’s foolish. It’s beyond foolish.”
In Texas, after an onslaught of challenges, from the brutal winter storm to widespread power failures to water outages across the state, some saw another factor at work in the reopening debate: politics.
“It’s pretty obvious to people who pay attention that this is just a move to change the subject from the infrastructure failures that we just saw,” said Kaitlyn Urenda-Culpepper, an El Pasoan now living in Dallas, echoing a commonly heard sentiment across the state.
But Urenda-Culpepper, whose mother died from COVID-19 in July, acknowledged that the governor had the power to make such decisions, as frustrating and enraging as they might be. And given that, there was no choice but to hope for the best.
“I don’t want him to be wrong,” she said. “But obviously for the greater good of the people, I’m like, ‘Man, you better be right and not cost us tens of thousands more people.’ ”