President Joe Biden said Wednesday that Texas made a "big mistake" by removing its statewide mask mandate and suggested the decision reflected "Neanderthal thinking."
The comments by the Democratic president came a day after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was not only ending the mask requirement but also allowing businesses to reopen at full capacity. A small fraction of Texans have been fully vaccinated, and while coronavirus numbers have been generally declining in the state, they remain substantial.
"Texas — I think it's a big mistake," Biden said at the White House. "We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because the way in which we are able to get vaccines in people's arms. The last thing — the last thing — we need is Neanderthal thinking in the meantime."
Abbott's office responded Wednesday afternoon, saying the he was "clear in telling Texans that COVID hasn’t ended, and that all Texans should follow medical advice and safe practices to continue containing COVID."
Later, Abbott said it was Biden’s immigration policies that were the real threat to Texans and accused the president of releasing migrants with COVID-19 into Texas.
“The Biden Administration is recklessly releasing hundreds of illegal immigrants who have COVID into Texas communities,” he tweeted. “The Biden Admin. must IMMEDIATELY end this callous act that exposes Texans & Americans to COVID.”
It’s unclear if he was referring to migrants enrolled in the Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) who were allowed to enter the United States last week as part of Biden’s undoing of his predecessor’s policies, or recent asylum seekers who were apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley. As of Wednesday night, Abbott’s office had not responded to a request for comment.
The migrants in MPP are all tested before being allowed to enter, according to a statement from Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. In Ciudad Juárez, the migrants in the program are tested before entering El Paso, Ruben Garcia, the director of the Annunciation House shelter network that is temporarily housing the migrants, confirmed to The Texas Tribune.
Biden's administration has urged states not to let up on restrictions as vaccinations pick up. Rochelle Walensky, Biden's director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reiterated that earlier Wednesday during a White House coronavirus briefing when asked about Abbott's announcement.
"I think we at the CDC have been very clear that now is not the time to release all restrictions," Walensky said.
Asked about the Texas news a short time later, White House press secretary Jen Psaki did not directly address Abbott's actions but said "the entire country has paid the price for political leaders who ignored the science when it comes to the pandemic."
Abbott's announcement came four days after he joined Biden for a tour of Houston that was partly about the state's vaccination efforts. In remarks at the end of the trip, Biden stressed it was "not the time to relax" practices to curb the spread of the virus.
"We have to keep washing our hands, staying socially distanced," Biden said. "And for God’s sake, wear your mask."
Abbott explained his actions Tuesday by making the case that Texas was in a "completely different position" from when the pandemic began, a point that his office reiterated in replying to Biden on Wednesday.
"The fact is, Texas now has the tools and knowledge to combat COVID while also allowing Texans and small businesses to make their own decisions," Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement. "It is clear from the recoveries, the vaccinations, the reduced hospitalizations and the safe practices that Texans are using, that state mandates are no longer needed. We must now do more to restore livelihoods and normalcy for Texans. The Governor’s focus has been, and always will be, protecting the lives and livelihoods of Texans."
Texans have been under a statewide mask mandate since July of last year — and they have grown widely comfortable with it, according to polling. The latest survey from the University of Texas and Texas Tribune found that 88% of the state's voters wear masks when they're in close contact with people outside of their households. That group includes 98% of Democrats and 81% of Republicans.
While federal leaders denounced Abbott's actions, Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, told a panel of state House members Wednesday afternoon that he and Abbott were on the same page about COVID-19 prevention recommendations. Hellerstedt said the governor did not lift restrictions in an attempt to diminish safety.
“I think the difference is, should you wear a mask? The answer is absolutely yes,” Hellerstedt told the House Public Health Committee. “Does the governor want folks to wear a mask and to take their own personal responsibility to do it? The answer, I believe, is yes.”
Hellerstedt was also asked whether Abbott consulted with him before Tuesday's action. The commissioner said that he spoke with the governor’s team beforehand, but the governor himself did not have a conversation with Hellerstedt ahead of the announcement.
Cassi Pollock and Julián Aguilar contributed reporting.
Correction, March 3, 2021: This story previously misquoted President Joe Biden's comments about Texas' coronavirus restrictions lifting. He said, "We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because the way in which we are able to get vaccines in people's arms." He did not say, "because the way in which are are able to get vaccines in people's arms."