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Joe Biden slams 'Neanderthal' decisions to end mask mandates amid Covid-19 pandemic

President Joe Biden. Picture: Brendan Smialowski/AFP

President Joe Biden. Picture: Brendan Smialowski/AFP

Published Mar 4, 2021


Ben Sheppard

Washington - President Joe Biden on Wednesday slammed "Neanderthal" decisions by Texas and Mississippi to drop mask-wearing mandates, underscoring that the Covid-19 pandemic across the United States remains far from beaten.

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"I think it's a big mistake. I hope everybody's realised by now, these masks make a difference. We're on the cusp of being able fundamentally change the nature of this disease," Biden told reporters in the White House, pointing out that the death toll continues to rise past the half-million mark.

"The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything's fine - take off your mask, forget it. It still matters."

Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), echoed the warning, saying the Texas and Mississippi decisions to defy federal guidelines and drop mask requirements were premature.

The United States has recorded more than 500 000 deaths from the coronavirus, but has recently made progress in the mass vaccination plan, leading some states to ease unpopular controls.

Walensky said, "Now is not the time to release all restrictions."

"The next month or two is really pivotal in terms of how this pandemic goes," she said. "I would still encourage individuals to wear a mask, to socially distance."

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Biden's White House coronavirus advisor Andy Slavitt also said that the president was "100 percent" behind CDC recommendations for continued mask wearing.

Walensky cautioned that recent steep declines in Covid deaths and cases showed signs of stalling, and warned that the hyper-transmissible B117 variant "looms ready to hijack our successes to date."

Texas, followed by Mississippi, on Tuesday brushed off warnings to not relax restrictions, saying businesses including restaurants and bars could operate as normal from next week.

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Caution versus optimism

Just 9.2 percent of over-18s in Texas have had two vaccine doses, but Republican state governor Greg Abbott said the vaccine and better testing mean normal life can resume.

"For nearly half a year, most businesses have been open either 75 percent or 50 percent and during that time, too many Texans have been sidelined from employment opportunities," he told a business forum Tuesday.

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"This must end. It is now time to open Texas 100 percent," he said to cheers from his audience.

Many Texans welcomed the move, saying mask-wearing was a matter of personal choice.

"I think this announcement is fantastic. I mean, let people make their own decision," Ron Mart, oil industry worker, told AFP in Houston.

"It doesn't need to be mandated. It's not a nanny state kind of thing. The governor is not my mom, you know."

But the Democratic mayor of Houston described the decision as "disappointing and disheartening" and tweeted that "every time we start moving in the right direction the Governor steps in and sets us back."

Iowa and Montana eased restrictions last month, and in Massachusetts, restaurants now have no capacity limit, while in South Carolina gatherings are no longer limited to 250 people.

Some Democratic cities, such as San Francisco, are also taking steps towards a post-pandemic life by allowing indoor eating and museums to open with limited capacity.

Biden has sought to balance his pleas for mask wearing with his message that the US's response to Covid-19 has been transformed since he took over from Republican president Donald Trump in January.

On Tuesday Biden announced that the United States will have enough Covid-19 vaccines for its adult population by the end of May - two months earlier than his last forecast.

He also unveiled a major deal for pharma giant Merck to produce the vaccine shot developed by its rival Johnson & Johnson.