Biden accuses Republican governors of 'Neanderthal thinking' over plans to reopen

Victoria Bekiempis in New York and Joan E Greve in Washington
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Joe Biden criticized Republican governors of Texas and Mississippi on Wednesday, calling their decisions to end state-wide mask mandates “a big mistake”.

The US president said the country was on the “cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease” with the distribution of vaccines and added: “The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything’s fine.”

Public health officials have also expressed disapproval of US states that are lifting mask mandates and reopening businesses. They urged that safety measures were still essential despite Biden’s announcement earlier this week that his administration was ahead of schedule on vaccinating all US adults against the coronavirus.

Government experts have spoken out loudly this week to sound the alarm that the US is at risk of yet another Covid-19 surge as states such as Texas rushed to dispense with public health orders designed to slow the spread of the disease.

Related: Up to 18 US states haven’t prioritized Covid vaccines for homeless, study finds

“We’ve been very clear that now is not the time to release all restrictions. The next month or two is really pivotal,” Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said.

She warned: “Today we are at a critical nexus in the pandemic. So much can turn in the next few weeks.”

At a briefing by the White House coronavirus response team she acknowledged that new cases of coronavirus in the US were “leveling off” but warned that virus variants were “ready to hijack our successes to date”.

The president on Tuesday announced that the US expects to have enough coronavirus vaccines for all adults by the end of May, two months earlier than anticipated, as his administration announced that the drugmaker Merck would help produce rival Johnson & Johnson’s shot that was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last weekend for emergency use.

His announcement came against a backdrop of states moving to relax their virus-related restrictions, despite health officials warning against relaxing Covid protocols too swiftly.

People wearing masks amid the Covid-19 pandemic are pictured on October 24, 2020 in downtown El Paso, Texas.
People wearing masks amid the Covid-19 pandemic are pictured on October 24, 2020 in downtown El Paso, Texas. Photograph: Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

In Texas, the Republican governor, Greg Abbott, moved to lift his state’s mask-wearing mandate and a host of other limitations, while Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, eased capacity limits on restaurants and public and residential gatherings. Mississippi is also rescinding its mask mandates beginning on Wednesday.

Biden encouraged all Americans to continue wearing masks to limit the spread of the coronavirus, saying: “Now is not the time to let up.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel,” the president said, but “it’s not over yet.”

On Wednesday, Walensky acknowledged that pandemic fatigue was in some respects winning out over the public’s stamina for maintaining restrictions.

“The exact measures we have taken to stop the pandemic are now too often being flagrantly ignored,” Walensky said, pointing out that relaxed attitudes were rising exactly as the US ramped up vaccination efforts. “How this plays out is up to us,” she added.

In Texas, for example, a mere 7% of residents are fully vaccinated, and many remain ineligible for inoculation.

About 43,000 Texans have died from Covid-19, against a national total death toll of 517,000, by far the world’s highest.

When the restrictions are lifted, Texas will become the most populous US state that does not require residents to wear face coverings.

The mayor of the state’s largest city, Houston, disagreed with the move.

“It’s a step in the wrong direction, unless the governor is trying to deflect what happened a little more than two weeks ago with the winter storm,” Sylvester Turner said, adding: “I’m very disappointed … it makes no sense.”

Texas suffered terribly in a deadly storm last month as Arctic temperatures, which many experts believe are driven by the climate crisis, crippled power supplies in much of the state with little warning.

And New York, which became the Covid-19 world hotspot for a time in spring 2020, has begun easing restrictions on more non-essential activities.

On 15 March, the state will permit weddings of up to 150 people, albeit with stringent safety requirements, and is in the process of loosening restrictions on indoor dining and cinemas in New York City.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Dolly Parton received her first dose of the Moderna Covid vaccine, the development of which she helped to fund.

When receiving her jab, the country music legend broke into an adaption of one of her biggest hits, Jolene, singing: “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, I’m begging of you, please don’t hesitate. Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, because once you’re dead, then that’s a bit too late.”

Although Parton made jokes in the video showing her getting vaccinated, her appearance also had a serious aim: combatting vaccine hesitancy, which is thought to be a serious problem in the US. About one-third of the US population have expressed reluctance about getting the vaccine.

“I’m old enough to get it and I’m smart enough to get it. I’m trying to be funny now, but I’m dead serious about the vaccine. I think we all want to get back to normal, whatever that is. And that would be a great shot in the arm, wouldn’t it, if we could get back to that?” Parton said.