Joe Biden
US President Joe Biden strongly criticised the decisions by the governors of Texas and Mississippi to lift statewide mask mandates, on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Houston: President Joe Biden on Wednesday strongly criticised 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 fuelling the spread of disease.

Move welcomed by some Texans

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 Trevino, 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.

Delicate time

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 Centres 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.

Similar wave of decisions?

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 H-E-B, 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 hospitalisations rise above a certain level. And even then, people cannot be penalized by local governments for not wearing masks.