The Florida Republican governor approached a group of students wearing masks who were standing behind a podium at the University of South Florida, where he was scheduled for a news conference Wednesday.
“You do not have to wear those masks. I mean please take them off,” DeSantis said to, at first, polite laughter. But he wasn’t kidding around.
“Honestly, it’s not doing anything. We’ve gotta stop with this Covid theater. So if you want to wear it, fine. But this is ridiculous,” he continued.
He then sighed dramatically and began delivering his remarks.
Some of the students took off their masks, while others left them on. The Hillsborough County School District in Florida told CNN the students at the event were from Middleton High School.
DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw defended the governor’s statements on Twitter: “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.”
DeSantis has been among the chief skeptics of the efficacy of mask-wearing as a means to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. Last summer, DeSantis signed an executive order barring schools from requiring students to wear masks. Last month, he said he favored the ability of parents to sue schools that bucked his ban on mask mandates.
It’s worth noting that while many states are in the process of undoing mask mandates as Covid-19 cases plummet nationwide, there’s still plenty of proof that suggests wearing masks — contra DeSantis — does have an effect.
“Layered prevention strategies — like staying up to date on vaccines and wearing masks — can help prevent severe illness and reduce the potential for strain on the healthcare system,” reads the latest CDC guidance on mask-wearing. “Wear a mask with the best fit, protection, and comfort for you.”
And according to the CDC, Hillsborough County’s community spread of Covid is high, so wearing masks indoors is recommended there.
Don’t expect DeSantis to acknowledge that fact. His aggressive positioning on the virus has won DeSantis a national following. In a 2024 straw poll conducted at the Conservative Political Action Conference over the weekend, he placed second to former President Donald Trump. DeSantis overwhelmingly won a second straw poll that did not include Trump.
DeSantis hasn’t been shy about his interest in a national bid. Unlike other names mentioned as possible candidates — such as former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley or South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott — he has pointedly refused to say a) he would support another Trump run or b) he would not run for president if Trump did.
Trump has noticed. “If I faced him, I’d beat him like I would beat everyone else,” Trump said last fall about the prospect of facing DeSantis in a 2024 primary. “I think most people would drop out, I think he would drop out.”