President Joe Biden on Wednesday called Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's decision to end his state's mask mandate "Neanderthal thinking," echoing frustration from top COVID-19 response officials in his administration that case numbers are not low enough to relax restrictions before more Americans are vaccinated.
Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday the state would "100% reopen," ending the mask mandate and allowing businesses to operate without restrictions, a move that contradicts Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance and public health experts from around the country.
Biden called the decision a big mistake.
"I hope everybody has realized by now these masks make a difference. We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because of the way we are able to get vaccine in people’s arms. We’ve been able to move that all the way up to the end of may to have enough for every American, to get every adult American to get a shot," he told reporters in the Oval Office.
"And the last thing, the last thing, the last thing we need is the Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime everything’s fine, take off your mask, forget it. It still matters. ... It’s critical, critical, critical, critical that they follow the science."
Top Biden administration officials involved in COVID-19 response expressed disappointment Wednesday in state decisions to start reopening at a critical point in the pandemic, saying it's more important than ever to keep wearing masks and preventing more cases of COVID-19 that could threaten the vaccine rollout.
Other states, including Mississippi, have also begun to relax restrictions and end requirements to wear masks citing the rate of vaccinations and lower numbers of COVID-19 cases, but infectious disease experts say changes in behavior now could risk another surge and the spread of more contagious variants.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the country is at a "critical nexus" in the pandemic and that individuals have to keep wearing masks, distancing, and protecting themselves and others from the virus so cases don't go back up before more people can be vaccinated.
On the one hand, cases in the country are leveling off at rates -- at rates just on the cusp of potential to resurge. And B-117 hyper transmissible variant looms ready to hijack our successes to date," Walensky said.
"And, on the other hand, stamina has worn thin, fatigue is winning, and the exact measures we have taken to stop the pandemic are now too often being flagrantly ignored."
Walensky said the CDC has been very clear that now is not the time to remove restrictions but said individuals can also choose to keep being proactive even when it's no longer required by their state.
"Every individual has -- is empowered to do the right thing here, regardless of what the states decide for personal health, for public health, for the health and their loved ones and communities. I would still encourage individuals to wear a mask, to socially distance, and to do the right thing to protect their own health," she said.
White House senior COVID-19 adviser Andy Slavitt said it is "critically important" to continue wearing masks over the next few months, saying Biden has emphasized it so much because it could save tens of thousands of lives. He said the White House strongly encourages governors and mayors to keep the course but recognizes they are under a lot of pressure.
"Even though it's counterintuitive, it's actually the most important time for people to make sure we run through the tape and finish that up. I think that's a commonly shared sentiment not just from us but from public health experts everywhere. So hopefully the country will continue to rally together in this front," he said.
When asked if the administration would take any steps to encourage or mandate that states stick to CDC guidelines, Slavitt said they are using federal control where they can but otherwise hope state leaders will listen.
"I think we are using the absolute full extent of all of the areas where we have federal control and we are actively, actively being very, very clear on what we think needs to happen. And so we hope that other elected officials who have authority in their domains will -- will, in fact, listen. We’re realistic enough to recognize that everybody's not going to pay attention to everything we say, but we think this very, very important," he said.