Gov. Ron DeSantis Bullies Teens Into Taking Off Masks For Press Conference

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Gov. Ron DeSantis scolded a group of teenagers on Wednesday for wearing masks while they stood behind him during a press conference at the University of South Florida.

The Florida Republican told the students to take off their masks as he took the podium to speak about funding cybersecurity education opportunities through the university. The students were in high school.

“You do not have to wear those masks. Please take them off,” a visibly annoyed DeSantis told the students, all of whom were wearing masks. “Honestly, it’s not doing anything. We’ve got to stop with this COVID theater. So if you want to wear it, fine. But this is ridiculous.”

The comments were followed by some of the seven students taking their masks off. Several of the teens chose to keep their masks on for the press conference.

According to WFLA-TV, the students came from Tampa’s Middleton High School, which is part of the Hillsborough School District. HuffPost left a message for the school’s principal to confirm whether the students DeSantis scolded attended classes there.

“We are excited our students from Middleton High School were highlighted as part of the statewide focus around cyber security education,” Hillsborough Superintendent Addison Davis told the station.

Davis added: “As always, our students should be valued and celebrated. It is a student and parents’ choice to protect their health in a way they feel is appropriate. We are proud of the manner in which our students represented themselves and our school district.”

The governor did not acknowledge the students after finishing his speech, which halfway through turned into commentary on political hot topics, President Joe Biden and Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

DeSantis, whose state has experienced alarming levels of COVID-19 infections, has long opposed mask and vaccine guidance that would help the public battle the virus. The governor made several decisions last yearin an effort to block mandates, and drew nationwide backlash for trying to withhold state funds from schools that implement them. A judge blocked that effort after parents sued the state, arguing that DeSantis’ order infringes on the rights of parents who want to keep their children safe.

Last month, the Republican said that parents should be able to sue school districts if they have a child who was told to wear a mask in Florida this year. However, the governor appeared not to acknowledge students’ personal choice to wear a mask on Wednesday.

Research has shown that wearing masks reduces the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed almost a million Americans since it was first identified in the country two years ago. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated guidance to say it no longer recommends mandating masks for most Americans, though anyone can choose to wear one if they feel safer doing so.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.