Florida governor Ron DeSantis called out a group of high school students Wednesday, telling them to stop “with this COVID theatre” and asking that they remove their masks.
The Republican governor was attending an indoor news conference at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and was visibly annoyed with the students as he approached the lectern.
“You do not have to wear those masks. I mean, please take them off. Honestly, it’s not doing anything. We’ve got to stop with this COVID theatre. So if you wanna wear it, fine, but this is ridiculous,” he said, letting out an audible sigh and shaking his head.
After his remarks, several of the students removed their masks, while others kept them on.
One of the students, 14-year-old Kevin Brown Jr., a high school freshman, told the Associated Press he was caught off-guard by DeSantis and felt pressured to remove his mask.
“I was a little bit surprised at his tone,” Brown said of the governor, adding that he chose to leave his mask on because there were many unmasked people around and he was wary of getting COVID-19.
Brown’s father, Kevin Brown Sr., told WFLA-TV that he would advise DeSantis to “stop bullying kids.”
“I tell him it’s his choice, so he made that choice and the governor has no right to tell no kid or no one they can or can’t wear a mask. He doesn’t have that right,” Brown Sr. told the TV station.
The area where DeSantis held the press conference is located in a region where indoor masking is still recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention due to high COVID-19 risk.
After his office tweeted a clip of the encounter, many were quick to take DeSantis to task for his actions and tone.
“I thought you were all for personal choice when it comes to people wearing masks.. I guess what you really meant is you’re only for personal choice if they agree with your choice..” tweeted one person.
Another person pointed out that DeSantis can’t possibly know these students’ health histories and shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss their choice to mask.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, DeSantis has been very vocal about his disdain for mask and vaccine mandates, drawing national attention. He is currently running for reelection and is widely rumoured to be a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate.
He has previously said that masking and getting vaccinated should remain a personal choice.
In July 2021, he issued an order barring Florida school districts from imposing mask mandates, despite the federal recommendation that all students wear masks when returning to school in the fall.
In a statement to the Associated Press, Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent Addison Davis said school officials were excited to have their students featured in the governor’s news conference, which was about the funding of a cybersecurity education initiative, and praised the students for how they acted.
“It is a student and parent’s choice to protect their health in a way they feel most appropriate. We are proud of the manner in which our students represented themselves and our school district,” Davis said.
DeSantis’ spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, tweeted in defence of the governor’s comments.
She also wrote: “I mean, someone had to say it, after 2 years of propaganda that terrified and manipulated young people. Breathe free, feel safe and be happy.”
Other DeSantis supporters also shared their applause for the governor.
“Someone needs to break through the brainwashing — @GovRonDeSantis did it,” tweeted Fox News host Laura Ingraham.
Another person wrote “DeSantis isn’t just right about masks today–he’s been right on the entire pandemic.”