TAMPA, Fla. -- A visibly annoyed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis admonished a group of high school students for wearing face masks at an indoor news conference Wednesday, saying it was time to stop what he called “this COVID theater."
The Republican governor approached the students and asked them to remove their masks as they waited for him at the press event at the University of South Florida in Tampa. The college is located in an area where the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends indoor masking due to high COVID-19 risk.
“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 theater. So if you wanna wear it, fine, but this is ridiculous," he said, letting out an audible sigh and shaking his head.
DeSantis, a fierce opponent of virus mask and vaccine mandates, is running for reelection and is considered to be a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate. His opposition to coronavirus masking and vaccine mandates has drawn national attention, and his administration has banned mask mandates in schools, often with the governor and his Republican supporters saying parents should have control over the health care choices of their children.
One of the students, 14-year-old Kevin Brown Jr., a high school freshman, at told The Associated Press he was caught off-guard by DeSantis and felt pressured to removed 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 who they can or can’t wear a mask. He doesn’t have that right," Brown Sr. told the TV station.
In a statement, 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' office did not immediately return an email seeking comment. His spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, has tweeted defenses of the governor's comments, writing “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.”
Though the CDC late last month eased its masking guidelines, the agency is still recommending masks indoors in areas it considers high risk. Hillsborough County, where the college is located, is deemed high risk by the CDC.
The incident drew criticism of DeSantis on social media. U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat, tweeted, “Shame on you, Governor DeSantis, for berating students who choose to wear masks and for calling the ongoing #COVID pandemic 'theater.'”
Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.