WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden on Wednesday called Texas and other states’ decisions to end mask mandates and loosen other COVID-19 restrictions despite warnings from health officials "a big mistake."
"I think it's a big mistake," Biden said from the Oval Office. "I hope everyone 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 in which we have been able to get vaccines in people's arms."
"The last thing, the last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime everything's fine, take off your mask," he said. "It still matters."
Texas on Tuesday became the biggest state to lift its mask rule. It will also do away with limits on the number of diners who can be served indoors, said Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who made the announcement at a restaurant in Lubbock.
"Removing statewide mandates does not end personal responsibility," said Abbott, speaking from a crowded dining room where many of those surrounding him were not wearing masks. "It’s just that now state mandates are no longer needed."
President Joe Biden speaks to the press before a meeting in the Oval Office with lawmakers in the White House on March 3, 2021, in Washington, D.C. to discuss cancer legislation. (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Eased pandemic rules in the Lone Star state joined a rapidly growing movement by governors and other leaders across the U.S. to loosen COVID-19 restrictions despite pleas from health officials not to let their guard down yet.
The governors of Michigan, Mississippi and Louisiana likewise eased up on bars, restaurants and other businesses Tuesday, as did the mayor of San Francisco.
A year into the crisis, politicians and ordinary Americans alike have grown tired of rules meant to stem the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed over 517,000 people in the U.S., according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
In response, top health officials, including the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have begged people repeatedly not to risk another deadly wave of contagion just when the nation is making progress in vaccinating people and victory over the outbreak is in sight.
U.S. cases have plunged more than 70% over the past two months from an average of nearly 250,000 new infections a day, while average deaths per day have plummeted about 40% since mid-January.
But the two curves have leveled off abruptly in the past several days and have even risen slightly, and the numbers are still running at alarmingly high levels, with an average of about 2,000 deaths and 68,000 cases per day. Health officials are increasingly worried about virus mutations.
"We stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained," CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky warned on Monday.
The CDC has long advised people to wear masks because they help prevent people who are infected — whether they know it or not — from spreading the coronavirus. Masks can also protect wearers who are not infected, according to the agency.
Even after people have received their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, experts say individuals should continue to wear a mask, at least for now. The vaccines are highly effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19, but it remains unclear how well they block spread of the coronavirus.
But despite warnings from public health officials, many Americans are sick of the shutdowns that have damaged their livelihoods and are eager to socialize again.
In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed announced that California gave the green light to indoor dining and the reopening of movie theaters and gyms.
"You can enjoy your city, right here, right now," she said from Fisherman’s Wharf, one of the city's biggest tourist attractions. She added: "We are not where we need to be yet, but we’re getting there, San Francisco."
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves said he is getting rid of most mask mandates and lifting most other restrictions, including limits on seating in restaurants, starting Wednesday.
"The governor’s office is getting out of the business of telling people what they can and cannot do," the Republican said.
Florida, which is getting ready for spring break travelers to flock to its sunny beaches, is considered to be in an "active outbreak," along with Texas, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and South Carolina, according to the data-tracking website CovidActNow.
Florida Gov. Rick DeSantis made it clear during his annual State of the State address Tuesday that he welcomes more visitors to Florida in his drive to keep the state’s economy thriving.
Florida municipalities can impose their own mask rules and curfews, restrict beach access and place some limits on bars and restaurants, but some have virtually no such measures in place.
Miami Beach will require masks indoors and out and restrict the number of people allowed on the beach as well as in bars and restaurants.
"If you want to party without restrictions, then go somewhere else. Go to Vegas," Miami Beach City Manager Raul Aguila said during a recent virtual meeting. "We will be taking a zero-tolerance attitude towards that behavior."
The Associated Press contributed to this report. It was reported from Cincinnati.