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DeSantis mischaracterizes the efficacy of face masks in comments to students

PolitiFact | Throughout the pandemic, DeSantis has taken positions contrary to public health guidance from experts.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gestures during a news conference after announcing a $20 million dollar program to create cybersecurity opportunities through the Florida Center for Cybersecurity at the University of South Florida Wednesday, March 2, 2022, in Tampa. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gestures during a news conference after announcing a $20 million dollar program to create cybersecurity opportunities through the Florida Center for Cybersecurity at the University of South Florida Wednesday, March 2, 2022, in Tampa. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]
Published Mar. 4|Updated Mar. 7

On March 2, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis walked into a press conference at the University of South Florida and saw seven high school students standing behind a podium, each of them wearing face masks.

“You don’t have to wear those masks,” DeSantis told the students. “I mean, please take them off.”

Some of them laughed, but the governor wasn’t joking. “Honestly, this is not doing anything. We’ve got to stop with this COVID theater.”

“So if you want to wear it, fine, but this is ridiculous,” DeSantis said before turning toward the lectern and letting out an audible sigh.

Behind the viral exchange, recorded on video by NBC affiliate WFLA, was a false notion promoted by the Republican governor — though upheld by a slew of his statewide policies — that mask-wearing is an ineffective symbol of paranoia.

Related: DeSantis chides students for wearing masks at his Tampa news conference

Throughout the pandemic, DeSantis has taken positions contrary to public health guidance from experts. In July, he issued an executive order barring schools from requiring face masks, saying that mask guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lacked a “well-grounded scientific justification.” We rated that claim False.

But the eyebrow-raising scene of a governor scolding students for wearing masks posed a broader question: Are there still legitimate reasons people might choose to wear face masks in public? We decided to find out.

Does the CDC’s latest guidance prove DeSantis right?

When we asked DeSantis about the incident, his press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said the governor wanted to ensure that people were informed about the “lack of evidence for masks.”

“Following Florida, the CDC has even stopped recommending mask wearing for most Americans, and even the most liberal states have dropped mask mandates for schools,” Pushaw said. “After two years of mixed messages and social engineering from health authorities and media, the governor wants to make sure everyone is aware of the facts and data.”

Contrary to what Pushaw suggested, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based its decision on its view that the nation is in a “stronger place” in the pandemic because of the widespread availability of testing, vaccines and other tools to prevent COVID-19. The relaxed mask recommendations for a large share of the U.S. were released in February.

Still, Greta Massetti, a senior epidemiologist for the CDC, said in a press conference announcing the recommendations that masking in low transmission areas was not unreasonable.

“We should all keep in mind that some people may choose to wear a mask at any time based on personal preference,” Massetti said. “And importantly, people who wear high-quality masks are well protected, even if others around you are not masking.”

A recent study published by the CDC found that wearing face masks notably reduced the likelihood of testing positive for COVID-19. Well-fitting masks block virus-sized particles in laboratory conditions, according to the study.

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Respirator masks proved to be the most effective, reducing the risk of contracting the virus by about 83 percent. Surgical masks came in second, with an efficacy of 66 percent.

“Masks have been a significant piece of personal protective equipment for both health-care workers potentially exposed to pathogens and laboratorians,” said Jill Roberts, associate professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health.

Who should still wear a mask?

The latest mask recommendations from the CDC urge people in areas of high community transmission to wear face masks when in public. A significant number of cities and counties across the U.S. have high COVID transmission rates.

Florida’s Hillsborough County — where DeSantis held the conference — currently has a high transmission rate and, per the CDC guidelines, people should wear masks. However, in accordance with DeSantis’ executive order, Hillsborough County Public Schools does not require its students to wear face masks.

But it doesn’t discourage mask-wearing, either.

“It is a student and parent’s choice to protect their health in a way they feel most appropriate,” a spokesperson for the school district told PolitiFact.

The CDC urges immunocompromised people — such as people with cerebral palsy, diabetes, or heart disease — to continue wearing masks when in public. Immunocompromised people comprise 2.7 percent of adults in the U.S., or about 7 million, according to the CDC.

“Immunocompromised individuals do not have the luxury of assuming that an infection will not be serious,” Roberts told PolitiFact. “Therefore, it is important that they are able to take steps to prevent disease, including wearing masks.”

In high-risk congregate settings, like schools, immunocompromised people are recommended to take further precautions.

After the emergence of the omicron variant, COVID-19 cases and hospitalization among children spiked. Immunocompromised children were disproportionately affected.

Children with intellectual and developmental disabilities are twice as likely to get COVID-19 than are their peers and have a higher mortality rate, the American Academy of Pediatrics found. For some of these children, difficulty with verbal communication can lead to the underreporting of COVID symptoms — further exacerbating their vulnerability.

“For immunocompromised kids, it is not ‘ridiculous’ to wear masks,” said Matthew Dietz, litigation director at the Disability Independence Group. “But this ridiculously minor precaution protects their lives.”

Children with disabilities may require close contact with teaching assistants on the bus or in classrooms. In such instances, masking can help mitigate the risk of infection while still providing the child with the assistance they need.

Our ruling

DeSantis told students that wearing masks “is not doing anything. We’ve got to stop with this COVID theater.”

Health authorities say that wearing a mask, even in a low-risk situation, can be effective at preventing transmission of COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses. In high-risk areas, like where DeSantis was speaking, public-health authorities strongly recommend wearing a mask. People who are immunocompromised are particularly at risk; masking at all times would be a recommended protective measure for this group.

DeSantis’s statement is not accurate. We rate it False.

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