WHITE HOUSE - U.S. President Joe Biden, while expressing frustration, has limited power to overrule decisions by state governors who are ending mask mandates and lifting other restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"I think it's a big mistake," Biden told a small group of reporters Wednesday in the Oval Office when asked about Republican governors in Texas and Mississippi casting off restrictions and allowing businesses to reopen at full capacity.
As the nation makes progress with vaccinations, "the last thing we need is the Neanderthal thinking that in the meantime, 'Everything's fine. Take off your mask. Forget it,' " added the president, a Democrat. "It still matters."
During the previous administration of Republican President Donald Trump, who downplayed the severity of COVID-19 despite eventually becoming infected himself, not wearing a mask became a political statement.
Since taking office in January, Biden and top federal health officials repeatedly have emphasized mask wearing and social distancing while the country escalates the number of Americans being vaccinated against the virus.
He noted during Wednesday's brief interaction with reporters that he carries a card with the updated number of people in the country who have died because of the coronavirus.
"As of yesterday, we had lost 511,874 Americans. We're going to lose thousands more," said Biden. "We'll not have everybody vaccinated until sometime in the summer."
The president, urging people to frequently wash their hands, wear masks and maintain social distancing, added, "And I know you all know that I wish the heck some of our elected officials knew it."
Earlier Wednesday, Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said that "now is not the time" to lift COVID-19 restrictions." Her comment came a day after Texas Governor Greg Abbott declared his state "100% open."
Texas, the second most populous state in the country, ranks 47th out of 50 for COVID-19 vaccinations per capita.
At a virtual news briefing for the White House COVID-19 response, Walensky said the next month or two would be pivotal in deciding the trajectory of the pandemic.
While infection rates across the country have been leveling off, COVID-19 variants such as the highly transmissible so-called British strain are poised to surge, threatening to destroy what progress has been made, Walensky said.
In Mississippi on Tuesday, Governor Tate Reeves followed Texas' move and lifted his state's mask mandate and business restrictions.
Under the U.S. Constitution and because of Supreme Court decisions, states - not the federal government - have primary authority to control the spread of dangerous diseases within their jurisdictions.
"A federalist system means that the central government, the United States government, is a government of limited powers, and the states retain police powers, which historically has included public health," explained Meryl Chertoff, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University in Washington.
The Commerce Clause, which gives Congress exclusive authority to regulate interstate and foreign commerce, does allow the federal government to order quarantines and impose other health measures to prevent the spread of diseases from foreign countries, as well as between states. But that authority has never been affirmed by the courts, according to the American Bar Association.
A year ago, at the start of the pandemic, Trump said he had discussed "a national lockdown" with advisers to minimize the spread of the coronavirus. Several days later, he dismissed the idea.
"I think it was a political decision to leave these decisions to the governors in order to be able to allocate praise and blame," Chertoff, the executive director of the Georgetown Project on State and Local Government Policy and Law, told VOA.
Some authorities desired a powerful federal response, but an unprecedented executive order would likely have been challenged in the courts on constitutional grounds.
FILE - Tenants' rights advocates march from the Edward W. Brooke Courthouse, Jan. 13, 2021, in Boston. The protest called on the then-incoming Biden administration to extend the eviction moratorium initiated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Courts are currently considering the constitutionality of evictions amid the pandemic, which had been ordered halted by the CDC, a federal agency.
"This is relevant to the mask mandates because it suggests that the courts are now starting to consider whether under provisions of the Public Health Services Act of 1944 ... the authority of the federal government to act with respect to emergency public health situations is broader than has been previously acknowledged," said Chertoff.
She cautioned that those who want the president and the executive branch to have "a more muscular set of tools" to deal with an unprecedented public health crisis need to consider that once the federal government has such tools, "they will be around not just for the next four years, but for the next 40 years."