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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, one of the nation’s most prominent opponents of coronavirus restrictions, lashed out at a group of students attending a cybersecurity event for wearing face coverings on Wednesday.
“You do not have to wear those masks,” DeSantis said as he approached the students, who were to stand behind the podium at which he was to deliver his remarks.
“I mean, please take them off,” he told them directly, finger pointed. “Honestly, it’s not doing anything. And we gotta stop with this COVID theater. So if you want to wear it, fine, but this is ridiculous.”
NEW: @GovRonDeSantis annoyed with USF students—
"You do not have to wear those masks. Please take them off. Honestly, it's not doing anything. We've gotta stop with this Covid theater. So if you wanna wear it, fine, but this is ridiculous."https://t.co/7j1Pb2hV53 @WFLA pic.twitter.com/ZIOyTHLOh3
— Evan Donovan (@EvanDonovan) March 2, 2022
The scene was captured by Evan Donovan, a reporter for local news station WFLA. The cybersecurity event was held at the University of South Florida, but some of the students were apparently in high school. The local school district from Middleton High School provided a statement from Superintendent Addison Davis who said students have the "choice to protect their health in a way they feel most appropriate."
“We are excited our students from Middleton High School were highlighted as part of the statewide focus around cybersecurity education," Davis said. "Our Cybersecurity pathway at MHS has had tremendous success through students earning industry certifications, participating in internships, and leading the way in computer systems and information technology. As always, our students should be valued and celebrated. 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.”
A spokeswoman for the governor, Christina Pushaw, defended DeSantis’s message. “After two years of mixed messages from health authorities and media,” she wrote in an email to Yahoo News, “the governor wants to make sure everyone is aware of the facts and data now, so they can feel free and comfortable without a mask.”
Last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention effectively said that millions of Americans who had been masking no longer had to do so. But public health officials have emphatically said that no one should be maligned if they do choose to wear a face covering.
DeSantis has framed masking — and vaccination — as a matter of personal freedom, arguing that nobody would be prevented from masking if they chose to do so. His complaint to the masked students gathered for his remarks, however, suggested otherwise.
A majority of Floridians favored masking during the Delta wave of late summer 2021, but DeSantis engaged in a protracted legal battle with school districts that sought to impose mask mandates. Since then, he has become a favorite of conservatives who believe the threat of the coronavirus has been exaggerated. His new surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, has downplayed vaccination and, last year, refused to wear a mask when meeting with a legislator undergoing treatment for breast cancer.