WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Wednesday said it's a “big mistake” for states to lift pandemic restrictions, calling it a result of "Neanderthal thinking."
In brief remarks before meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to discuss ways to fight cancer, Biden said it's important to listen to the recommendations of scientists, especially as the nation is on the cusp of turning things around with the coronavirus vaccines.
"The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that, in the meantime, everything's fine, take off your mask, forget it," he said. "It still matters."
His comments came the day after the GOP governors of Texas and Mississippi said they're lifting COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates.
"I think it's a big mistake," Biden said. "I hope everybody's realized by now these masks make a difference."
White House officials are emphasizing that people can still follow the federal guidelines on their own.
"Every individual is empowered to do the right thing here, regardless of what the states decide for personal health, for public health, for their health of their loved ones and communities," Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday. "I would still encourage individuals to wear masks, to socially distance, and to do the right thing to protect their own health."
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves tweeted Tuesday that, starting Wednesday, all county mask mandates would be lifted and businesses allowed to operate at full capacity. He noted that hospitalizations and case numbers have plummeted, and the vaccine is being rapidly distributed.
"We are getting out of the business of telling people what they can and cannot do," he said.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he's moving to "open Texas 100%" and will issue an executive order to take effect March 10 rescinding most of his earlier orders, including restrictions on business occupancy and the July 2 statewide mask order.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Biden is not in a position to be "preaching to my state about how to handle this COVID-19 virus" because he has his hands full with immigration issues.
"The fact is if you want to wear a mask, you can still wear a mask," Cornyn said. "At some point, the government needs to quit making arbitrary rules that do not have any demonstrable connection with the public."
Biden met with Abbott Friday when he visited Texas to survey winter storm damage.
Pressed on Wednesday about whether the president will try to get Abbott to change his mind, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden speaks with governors on a regular basis.
"I'm sure he will raise this the next opportunity he has," she said.
Walensky described the nation as being at a "critical nexus" in the pandemic.
The decline in COVID-19 cases and deaths shows signs of stalling as variants are circulating. At the same time, she said, measures that have been taken to stop the pandemic are “now too often being flagrantly ignored.”
“Fatigue is winning,” she said.
Walensky called the next three months a pivotal period as vaccinations ramp up.
"Even though it's counterintuitive," added White House COVID-19 adviser Andy Slavitt, "it's actually the most important time for people to make sure we run through the tape and finish that up."
Contributing: Nicholas Wu.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden: Texas, other states lifting mask rules Neanderthal thinking