AUSTIN, Texas -- After Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced the state will be lifting its mask mandate next week, President Joe Biden is calling the decision a "big mistake."
Tuesday's announcement made Texas the largest state to end an order intended to prevent the spread of the coronavirus that has killed more than 42,000 Texans.
The Republican governor has faced sharp criticism from his party over the mandate, which was imposed eight months ago, and other COVID-19 restrictions. It was only ever lightly enforced, even during the worst outbreaks of the pandemic.
On Wednesday, Biden was asked about Abbott's decision, and it's something he says is a big mistake. He also added, "masks make a difference."
"The last thing you need is Neanderthal thinking that, in the meantime, everything is fine, take off your mask," Biden said. "It's critical that we follow the science. Wear a mask and stay socially distanced."
Not only will Texas lift its mask mandate, but the state will also do away with limits on the number of diners that businesses can serve indoors, said Abbott, who made the announcement at a restaurant in Lubbock. He said the new rules would take effect on March 10.
"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," he said.
The decision comes as governors across the U.S. have been easing coronavirus restrictions, despite warnings from health experts that the pandemic is far from over. Like the rest of the country, Texas has seen the number of cases and deaths decrease. Hospitalizations are at the lowest levels since October, and the seven-day rolling average of positive tests has dropped to about 7,600 cases, down from more than 10,000 in mid-February.
Abbott imposed the statewide mask mandate in July during a deadly summer surge. But enforcement was spotty at best, and some sheriffs refused to police the restrictions at all. And as the pandemic dragged on, Abbott ruled out a return to tough COVID-19 rules, arguing that lockdowns do not work.
Politically, the restrictions elevated tensions between Abbott and his own party, with the head of the Texas GOP at one point leading a protest outside the governor's mansion. Meanwhile, mayors in Texas' biggest cities argued that Abbott wasn't doing enough.
Most of the country has lived under mask mandates during the pandemic, with at least 37 states requiring face coverings to some degree. But those orders are increasingly falling by the wayside: North Dakota, Montana and Iowa have also lifted mask orders in recent weeks.
The Associated Press and KTRK contributed to this report.