A sign requiring make is seen Wednesday near diners eating at a restaurant on the River Walk in San Antonio. Credit: Eric Gay / AP

WASHINGTON — A day after Gov. Greg Abbott announced an end to all pandemic-related precautions in Texas, President Joe Biden slammed him Wednesday for putting lives at risk by clinging to “Neanderthal thinking” rather than heeding advice from the nation’s top scientists.

“I think it’s a big mistake,” Biden told reporters during an Oval Office meeting with lawmakers. “We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because of the way in which we’re able to get vaccines in people’s arms. … The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, everything’s fine, take off your mask. Forget it. It still matters.”

He noted the death toll, 511,874 Americans at last count.

“We’re going to lose thousands more. … We’ll not have everybody vaccinated until sometime in the summer,” Biden said. “It’s critical, critical, critical, critical that they follow the science. Wash your hands, hot water. Do it frequently, wear a mask and stay socially distanced. And I know you all know that I wish the heck some of our elected officials knew it.”

The nation’s top infectious disease experts have expressed disappointment at Abbott’s decision to end all restrictions starting next Wednesday, calling the move premature and warning it could lead to a resurgence of the outbreak that has cost 43,266 lives in Texas.

“We at the CDC have been very clear that now is not the time to release all restrictions,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asked about Texas’ change of policy during a White House briefing.

Abbott announced the move on Tuesday, boasting that Texas would be “100% open” as of March 10. Under his order, Texans will no longer be required to wear face masks, and all businesses will be allowed to operate at full capacity.

Mississippi made a similar announcement.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called the decisions to scrap mask mandates “ill-advised” and “really quite risky.”

Abbott avoided taking on Fauci and the other medical experts. But he hit back at Biden for “recklessly endangering the lives of Texans,” referring to a report that in recent weeks, federal authorities released more than 100 migrants in Brownsville who later tested positive for COVID-19 at the city’s bus station.

“President Biden’s administration itself is exposing Texans and Americans to COVID-19 through illegal immigrants that they are allowing to come into the state of Texas,” Abbott told KPRC-TV in Houston. “He is bringing in people with COVID-19 and releasing them into our communities.”

Abbott and Biden spent hours together on Friday in Houston with no hint of animosity. The president assessed Texas’ recovery from the previous week’s statewide power failures and toured a vaccination “super site” at NRG Park capable of delivering 6,000 shots per day.

At no point did Abbott indicate that he would soon abandon the pandemic-control measures advocated by federal public health authorities.

U.S. Rep. Lance Gooden, a Republican, echoed Abbott’s line of attack, accusing Biden of misplaced priorities in pressuring Texas over masks while doing little to keep out migrants.

“Some are bringing the disease with them,” he asserted on Fox Business.

“If Joe Biden would actually come out and secure the border I would wear five masks a day,” Gooden said. “Our numbers are down. Businesses have been crushed across the nation, including in Texas, and we don’t think it’s a Neanderthal thought that the people of Texas, or all Americans for that matter, can make the decision for themselves. The governor did not … ban masks. He just eliminated the mandate to wear them.”

Evidence from fossils and DNA indicates that Neanderthals and homo sapiens had a common ancestor about 600,000 years ago. Modern humans arrived in Europe from Africa about 45,000 years ago and about 5,000 later, their thick-browed cousins abruptly disappeared. Calling someone a Neanderthal has long been an insult connoting low intelligence.

At the U.S. Capitol, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who also joined Biden in Houston, defended Abbott against the criticism.

“President Biden has a lot of problems to take care of. … And so I don’t think he’s got a lot to say about preaching to my state about how to handle this COVID-19 virus,” he said, adding that “the fact of the matter is, if you want to wear a mask you can still wear a mask.”

But public health experts say voluntary masking isn’t enough. Only widespread masking will keep down the spread as mass vaccinations ramp up, though the federal government lacks authority to mandate that at the state level.

Andy Slavitt, White House senior adviser for COVID-19 Response, called masks “critically important,” noting the emphasis Biden has put on mask-wearing.

“I don’t think he could be possibly any clearer about the need for masks,” Slavitt said. “We know that it can save tens of thousands of lives if people do this, and we strongly encourage people to continue to wear masks.”

Walensky urged Texans to voluntarily take the precautions the state will no longer require.

“As we scale up vaccination we really do need to decrease the amount of virus that is circulating,” she said. “Every individual is empowered to do the right thing here, regardless of what the states decide — for personal health, for public health, for their health of their loved ones and communities. I would still encourage individuals to wear masks, to socially distance, and to do the right thing to protect their own house.”

Story by Todd J. Gillman, The Dallas Morning News.