A visibly annoyed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis admonished a group of students for wearing face masks at an indoor news conference Wednesday, saying it was time to stop what he called “this COVID theater.”
DeSantis, a fierce opponent of virus mask and vaccine mandates, approached the students and asked them to remove their masks as they awaited the Republican governor at the news conference at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
“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 is running for reelection and is considered to be a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate. His opposition to masks and vaccines has drawn national attention, and his administration has banned mask mandates in schools.
DeSantis’ office did not immediately return an email seeking comment. His spokeswoman, 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.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late last month eased its masking guidelines, though 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 over 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.’”
State Rep. Angie Nixon of Jacksonville called the Governor’s actions “bullying” and a “blatant disregard for parental rights today.” DeSantis had penalized school districts that required students wear masks as a disregard for parents’ rights.
“For a promoter of parental rights and freedom, Governor DeSantis’ actions have consistently shown otherwise: no you can’t learn the truth, no you can’t say ‘gay,’ no you can’t choose whether or not to be a parent, and no you actually can’t stay safe if you want to,” Nixon said, according to a release.