TAMPA, Fla. — Florida's governor on Wednesday appeared to scold a group of high school students, emphatically and directly telling them to remove their face masks during a press event at the University of South Florida.
"You do not have to wear those masks. I mean, please take them off," DeSantis told at least six masked students as he walked up to a podium at the Sam & Martha Gibbons Alumni Center.
Some of the students, who attend Middleton High School in Tampa, laughed, but it was very clear that DeSantis was not joking.
"Honestly, it's not doing anything, and we gotta stop with this COVID theater," DeSantis said. "So, if you wanna wear it, fine. But this is, this is ridiculous."
The governor, visibly irritated, then exhaled sharply and shook his head at the podium.
A few of the students did indeed remove their facial coverings. But at least two kept their masks on while DeSantis spoke for roughly 30 minutes, announcing a $20 million plan to improve cybersecurity education throughout the Sunshine State.
DeSantis has been outspoken against facial covering mandates, especially when it comes to education.
During a special legislative session back in November — which the governor called — Florida lawmakers passed legislation that gives parents the ultimate say over whether their children should wear masks in school.
In February, DeSantis expressed support for a proposal to strip $200 million in state funding from 12 school districts — including those in Palm Beach and Indian River counties — that required students to wear facial coverings last year without the ability to opt-out.
DeSantis has repeatedly argued the prolonged use of masks may lead to speech and emotional problems for children.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Feb. 25 updated its facial covering guidance for Americans,saying people who live in areas with a "low" or "moderate" level of COVID-19 community transmission do not need to wear masks indoors.
However, those who are at a "high risk for severe illness" should consult with their doctor about whether to wear a mask, the CDC said.
The CDC recommended universal masking in schools only for areas with a "high" level of COVID-19 transmission.
Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, and Okeechobee counties all have a "medium" level of community transmission, while Indian River County is in the "low" category.
"We gotta be in a situation where people are able to be treated with respect and not be forced to do this. I think we're getting there," DeSantis said.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who's running against DeSantis as a Democrat in the November election, quickly tweeted her distaste with the governor's comments toward the high school students.
"As governor, I won't bully students," Fried said.
As governor, I won't bully students. https://t.co/pTLza1gVJ1— Nikki Fried (@NikkiFried) March 2, 2022
According to USF's COVID-19 policies, facial coverings are not required indoors or outdoors on campus. However, the school does "encourage everyone to choose to wear a mask indoors, especially those who are not vaccinated."
SPECIAL COVERAGE: Coronavirus
Speaking at a news conference in Vero Beach on Monday, the governor spoke out against the "force masking" of restaurant employees.
"I see the staff is forced to wear masks a lot of times. So they're toiling under these masks when nobody else is doing it. Do not tell me that is based in science. That is COVID theater," DeSantis said.
Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent Addison Davis offered the following statement on the students' interaction with the governor:
"We are excited our students from Middleton High School were highlighted as part of the statewide focus around cybersecurity education. 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."