TAMPA — At a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis expressed irritation that a group of high school students standing behind him were wearing masks and urged them to remove the face coverings.
Before taking the lectern at the University of South Florida, where he announced a $20 million state investment in cybersecurity workforce education, DeSantis asked why people wearing masks were standing behind him.
Then he approached the students, who are studying cybersecurity in high school.
“You don’t have to wear those masks,” DeSantis said. “Please take them off.”
Some of the students laughed. DeSantis appeared to remain annoyed. “Honestly, this is not doing anything,” he said. “We’ve got to stop with this COVID theater.” The students didn’t respond.
“So if you want to wear it, fine, but this is ridiculous,” the governor said before turning around and sighing.
Four students took their masks off, but three left them on.
DeSantis has previously said Florida is “the freest state in these United States” and individuals should be left to decide for themselves how to respond to COVID-19.
DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw said the governor wanted “to make sure everyone is aware of the facts and data now, so they can feel free and comfortable without a mask.”
“As the governor said, “You can wear them if you want” but there’s “no evidence” they make any difference,” she said in an email. “That has been clear for a long time, and the data informed our state’s official guidance. Following Florida, the CDC has even stopped recommending mask wearing for most Americans.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s mask rules have changed throughout the 2-year pandemic, and last week came the most relaxed guidelines yet: Americans can now take off their masks indoors in areas where COVID-19 is no longer a threat to overwhelm hospitals.
The agency crafted a three color-coded system to help people determine what precautions they should take in their counties. Green areas are in the clear, while those in yellow areas who are at high risk if they get infected should consult their doctors.
Orange areas are considered at high risk of transmission and people there are advised to wear masks. Most of Florida and all of Tampa Bay are currently colored orange — including Hillsborough County.
During the announcement and responding unprompted to Tuesday night’s State of the Union address by President Joe Biden, DeSantis came back to criticize “forced” masking of kids.
Two weeks ago, DeSantis said, guests at the State of the Union address were going to be required to wear masks. He said he did not think science changed, but that politics changed it. He joked that Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was in the witness protection program these days.
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“They changed that because they knew it would be a terrible visual to have all these people there suffering in masks while the rest of the country is out there living their lives,” DeSantis said. “Now it’s like we all want to be like Florida.”
The high school students appeared to be unfazed by their encounter with the governor.
William Vu and Ananya Sista, both seniors at Tampa’s Middleton High School, chose to keep their masks on.
Vu, 18, shrugged.
“I think he’s just following the policy he’s putting out,” he said. “And we did what we wanted.”
The two said they were still excited to be there for the announcement of the initiative, which would expand training opportunities in cybersecurity to middle, high school and two-year college students, similar to other investments in workforce education. Currently, DeSantis said, Florida has 22,000 unfulfilled jobs in cybersecurity.
While at similar announcements recently, the governor has frequently chided some four-year degrees as useless, calling them “zombie studies.” But on Wednesday, where USF board of trustees chairperson Will Weatherford called him “America’s governor,” he held back from such criticism.
DeSantis mentioned how state schools like USF “hold the line” on tuition and fields like cybersecurity often require four-year degrees.
He said the new state investment will be dispersed through the Florida Center for Cybersecurity, which has been housed at USF since 2014. It will pay to train teachers and purchase new equipment to bring cybersecurity instruction to younger students in Hillsborough, Pinellas and other counties.
DeSantis said the state also plans to partner with Florida International University and a third region, which is still up for grabs.
“You’re putting students in positions to get skills that are going to be immediately in demand,” he said.
Henry Mack, senior chancellor of the department of education, said the state’s commitment to workforce education continues. Applications for grants will be available at cyberflorida.org next week, he said.
“You don’t have to go to university,” he said. “That is an excellent and awesome goal if you want it, but for students who need a certification or credential to get into the workforce to alleviate our risk and meet industry demand, we have those credentials now.”
Staff Writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report.