On March 2, Gov. Ron DeSantis headed to University of South Florida for a press conference to announce the disbursement of $20 million for the Florida Center for Cybersecurity, hosted by the university. Flanked by seven students from Tampa’s Middleton High School, DeSantis highlighted how the increased funding would benefit middle and high schoolers, allowing them to obtain cybersecurity credentials before they enter college. But it’s what happened before this speech that has drawn more public interest, when DeSantis was heard scolding the students for wearing masks.
“You do not have to wear those masks. Please take them off,” he said. Some of the students laughed lightly. The governor continued, appearing to become increasingly annoyed. “Honestly, it’s not doing anything and we’ve got to stop with this Covid theater. So if you want to wear it, fine, but this is — this is ridiculous.”
Several of the students removed their masks, some swiftly, others appearing unsure and trepidatious. Three left their masks in place. In a statement to People, Hillsborough Superintendent Addison Davis said, “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 most appropriate. We are proud of the manner in which our students represented themselves and our school district.”
While on the surface this statement is, indeed, quite neutral, “parent choice” has been a rallying cry of DeSantis in his effort to eliminate masks from Florida schools.
Though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently loosened masking recommendations for most of the country, stating that approximately 70% of Americans live in low to medium risk counties where unmasking could be considered safe in most cases, Hillsborough County — where both Middleton High School and the University of South Florida are located — is rated as having a high community level of Covid.
In such instances, the CDC recommends continued indoor masking, among other measures, to stay safe. Despite the governor’s claim that masks are “not doing anything,” the CDC asserts that while some masks offer more protection against Covid than others (for example, N95 or KN95 respirators are more effective than cloth masks) “all masks provide some level of protection.”
“Masking is a critical public health tool for preventing spread of COVID-19,” the CDC writes on its website. “It is important to remember that any mask is better than no mask.”
This is certainly not the first time DeSantis has been dismissive of masking as a public health measure. In July 2021, the governor issued an executive order banning mask mandates in schools and threatened to withhold funding from districts that did implement such policies. Within weeks, a judge struck the order down, stating that such an order “[did] not pass constitutional muster.”
Over the past week, the governor has tweeted more than half a dozen anti-mask sentiments from his gubernatorial Twitter account, including a video from the press conference at the University of South Florida that included his comments to the masked students. On his personal account, he highlighted these comments explicitly, saying “The political science show cannot go on. It’s curtain call for COVID theater.”
As of press time, the CDC recommends that 63% of counties in the state of Florida should continue to wear masks indoors.