'Neanderthal thinking': Biden lays into states lifting Covid restrictions

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Ben Leonard
·5 min read
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President Joe Biden said Wednesday that moves by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and others to lift statewide Covid restrictions showed "Neanderthal thinking."

“I think it’s a big mistake. I hope everyone has realized right now these masks make a difference," Biden said of the decision to lift mask mandates and other Covid mitigation measures. "We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because of the way in which we are able to get vaccines in people’s arms.”

The president's remark came after both Texas and Mississippi issued executive orders Tuesday to eliminate mask mandates and let all businesses open at 100 percent capacity, flying in the face of health officials who have urged continued Covid restrictions. Biden has signed an executive order requiring mask-wearing on federal property but has little authority to overrule governors and other state and local officials.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, laid into Biden for his comments Wednesday.

"President Biden said allowing Mississippians to decide how to protect themselves is 'neanderthal thinking.' Mississippians don’t need handlers," Reeves wrote in a tweet. "As numbers drop, they can assess their choices and listen to experts. I guess I just think we should trust Americans, not insult them."

Later in the evening, the governor criticized Biden as being out of touch with people who live outside the Beltway.

“Today I feel the same way as I did the day that Hillary Clinton called all of us in Middle America 'deplorables,'” he said on Fox News, referencing a comment the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee had made about supporters of Donald Trump. “When President Biden said that we were all Neanderthals, it struck me as someone who needs to get outside of Washington, D.C., and actually travel to Middle America.”

In a statement to POLITICO, Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze said Abbott 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."

"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," Eze said. "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."

On Wednesday evening, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s top health adviser and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called these actions “ill advised.“ Although coronavirus numbers have declined since January highs, they have seemingly plateaued at levels that have concerned health officials.

“It‘s just inexplicable why you would want to pull back now,“ Fauci said on CNN. “I understand the need to want to get back to normality, but you‘re only going to set yourself back if you just completely push aside the public health guidelines, particularly when we‘re dealing with anywhere from 55,000 to 75,000 infections per day in the United States. That‘s a very, very high baseline.“

Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), said on MSNBC Wednesday that Abbott's move to lift restrictions "defies logic," calling on Texas to not listen to Abbott and to wear masks.

"The last time that he prematurely reopened the state we saw death, devastation, misery, both on the health front as well as the economic front. Businesses died. People died," Escobar said.

Abbott closed bars in June amid a spike in cases after reopening them, a move he later expressed regret over.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) rebuked Biden for his comments in a press conference Wednesday.

"President Biden has a lot of problems to take care of. He's got a crisis at the border that he calls a challenge and not a crisis," Cornyn said. "So I don't think he's got a lot to say about preaching to my state about how we've handled this Covid-19 virus."

White House press secretary Jen Psaki earlier on Wednesday called on Americans to continue wearing masks and practice other pandemic mitigation measures even as governors in some states lift Covid restrictions.

“This entire country has paid the price for political leaders who ignored the science when it comes to the pandemic,” Psaki said. “People are starting to feel a little bit better in some cases. You go to the grocery store and there’s Clorox wipes available. A year into this, that feels better, but there’s still more that needs to be done. We need to remain vigilant.”

“We’re not asking people just to listen to the president," she also said. "Of course, we recommend that, but we ask people to listen to health experts, medical experts, the CDC, to Dr. Fauci, to others who are basing their recommendations on how to save people’s lives.”

The press secretary also said she was sure Biden would discuss coronavirus mitigation measures with the governors lifting those restrictions at the next opportunity.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said at a briefing earlier on Wednesday that “now is not the time” to lift all restrictions, which comes as the nation is scaling up its vaccine distribution.

“The next month or two is really pivotal in terms of how this pandemic goes,” she said.

Benjamin Din contributed to this report.