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As Biden Urges Caution on Covid, Governors Split on How Fast to Reopen

Even within political parties, governors were taking different approaches as they tried to balance public health guidance with residents’ eagerness to get back to normal life.

Visitors along the San Antonio River Walk on Wednesday. A statewide mask mandate is ending next week.
Credit…Eric Gay/Associated Press
  • March 4, 2021

Despite President Biden’s sharp criticism of Texas and Mississippi for abruptly removing mask mandates, states and cities are aggressively going their own ways on Covid-19 restrictions as they decide when and how to reopen their economies.

The change in presidents has brought nearly diametrical federal responses to the pandemic, but the country is facing a patchwork of rules, state to state and city to city, similar to what was seen when the virus arrived a year ago and during the last months of the Trump administration.

On Thursday alone, two Republican governors chose not to follow Texas’ lead, leaving mask rules in place in Alabama and West Virginia. And in Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, announced that his state would end capacity limits on many businesses, including restaurants, gyms and offices, while keeping a mask mandate in place.

In part, the diverging strategies reflect how the federal government has historically handled public health policy, sharing responsibility with state and local authorities. Disparate approaches may make sense, given the wide variation of coronavirus outbreaks. But if Americans had hoped that the country would exit the pandemic in a more cohesive fashion than it entered it, that has not happened.

Mr. Biden has consistently told the country that the coronavirus is still a serious problem and needs to be combated with a full arsenal of vaccines and precautionary measures. Mr. Biden came into office calling on Americans to wear masks for 100 days — a request that runs through the end of April — as part of a plan that included an executive order directing that masks be worn on all federal property and on planes and trains.

White House officials said they have held weekly Tuesday calls with the nation’s governors since Mr. Biden took office, telling them that this is not the time to relax restrictions.

But Mr. Biden is limited in how much he can order states to follow federal guidance. And his top advisers say they see no benefits in waging a culture war against Republican governors while they are fighting to contain the pandemic.

President Biden and Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas met last week after a major storm. The president later criticized Mr. Abbott for his decision to end coronavirus restrictions.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

On one of those calls was Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who has urged governors to maintain mask requirements, order social distancing and keep in place public health measures designed to limit the spread of the virus, according to a person who has listened in.

In addition, the president’s top Covid-19 aides, including Jeff Zients, the coordinator of the response to the pandemic, are in touch with governors multiple times a day, officials said. The administration’s public health officials hold coronavirus briefings three times a week, in part to be a resource for state and local leaders.

Still, while the president and his aides have been clear about the need to wear masks and maintain basic hygiene, the Biden administration has not published any specific new suggestions for states and local governments to determine when to reopen restaurants, movie theaters, beaches, gyms and churches.

That is leaving many governors — particularly those in conservative-leaning states — balancing public health guidance with the impatience of shutdown-weary residents.

“There’s certainly a lot more pressure to open on Republican governors than Democratic governors,” said Neil Newhouse, a pollster who has worked for Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, among other Republicans. “The push on this is coming from more rural Americans, conservatives, Republicans. Many believe we are beginning to turn the corner, and there is a natural rush to try to get things back to normal.”

A senior administration official said, however, that no one could listen to Mr. Biden and believe he was doing anything other than encouraging people to remain vigilant. While there remains a patchwork of responses by state and local officials, the Biden administration has ramped up efforts to vaccinate Americans, the official said, creating what the official called a much more coherent federal response.

But even within political parties, there has been no uniform response. As some Republican-led states this week ordered mask mandates to be lifted, other Republican leaders called for the opposite. In Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday extended its mask mandate into April. And in West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice, another Republican, said “masks save lives,” insisting that he was in no rush to remove his state’s requirement to wear them in public.

Credit…Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser, via Associated Press

At the same time, Democrats are taking smaller steps to loosen coronavirus-related restrictions. In announcing the lifting of some rules in Connecticut, Governor Lamont said the mask mandate had proven effective.

“This is not Texas. This is not Mississippi. This is Connecticut,” Mr. Lamont said. “We are maintaining the masks.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, another Democrat, said she was easing restrictions on businesses and allowing family members who have tested negative for the coronavirus to visit nursing home residents. London Breed, the mayor of San Francisco, announced the return to indoor dining in the city this week, and Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has slowly eased rules throughout California, promised that residents could glimpse “bright light at the end of this tunnel.”

Without question, the United States is in a far better place than it was two months ago. Reports of new cases have declined more than 70 percent from their January peak, and hospitalizations have fallen by more than 60 percent. The once-halting rollout of the vaccination campaign has also accelerated, with about two million doses being administered across the country most days.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has helped open mass vaccination sites, and the Biden administration brokered a deal in which the pharmaceutical giant Merck would help manufacture the new Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine. Sixteen percent of people in the country have received at least one dose of a vaccine, and states are moving quickly to open eligibility to new groups.

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But there remains ample reason for concern. Highly infectious variants are circulating, case numbers are not declining as quickly as they had been and it remains routine for more than 2,000 deaths to be announced nationally in a single day. Outbreaks around New York City and Miami, where case numbers have plateaued at high levels, have largely offset continued progress in much of the Midwest and West.

In Texas, where case numbers have fallen sharply from their peak in January, Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement this week lifting mask rules was applauded by business executives.

“We’re a year into this pandemic. We all know what we’re supposed to do in terms of the C.D.C. guidelines and those good practices remain good actions that we should still take,” said Glenn Hamer, president of the state’s chamber of commerce. “It’s important to get as much oxygen into the economy as safely as possible.”

Credit…Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

But Jeff Williams, the Republican mayor of Arlington, Texas — a city of about 400,000 people between Dallas and Fort Worth — said he was urging residents to continue following the guidelines on mask-wearing and other recommendations that Mr. Biden had been pushing.

“We’re encouraging the citizens to keep doing the right thing and keep following the C.D.C. guidelines,” Mr. Williams said, noting that Mr. Abbott had urged people to keep wearing masks even as he dropped the state mandate. “They work. They are proven to work. It’s been an incredible tool for us.”

Mr. Williams said contact between his city and the federal government has increased since Mr. Biden took office, and he praised FEMA for working to set up a vaccine distribution center last week at the city’s Globe Life Field, the home of the Texas Rangers baseball team.

Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, a Democrat, said in an interview on Thursday that residents there have accepted rules like mask-wearing while favoring the reopening of certain businesses and activities. The state has one of the country’s lowest per capita rates of recent cases.

“Clearly there is a desire for all of us to try to reopen some of our activities as well, and we are doing that in a measured, scientifically sound way,” he said. “Our state really recognizes the effectiveness of masks. It is uncontestable, and it is part of our culture now.”

Gov. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, a Republican, pushed back on Mr. Biden’s criticism of governors in Texas and Mississippi, while maintaining the mask mandate in his own state. Case numbers have been steadily falling in New Hampshire since late January.

“I don’t think there should be name-calling or anything like that,” Mr. Sununu said. On Wednesday, Mr. Biden responded to the actions of the governors in Texas and Mississippi by saying it was “Neanderthal thinking.”

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said the comments were “a reflection of his frustration and exasperation” with the governors of Mississippi and Texas for undermining his message about the need for masks and virus-related restrictions.

“He’s going to engage with and talk with people who disagree with him on a range of issues, including this one, but he believes that if we’re going to get this pandemic under control, we need to follow public health guidelines.” Ms. Psaki told reporters on Thursday.

Reporting was contributed by Katie Rogers, Michael Gold, Eileen Sullivan and Mitch Smith.