It was a face-off, and I was outnumbered: seven little kids, splashing and chattering, one granddad, slathered with sunscreen.
I was lifeguarding my two granddaughters while they cooled off from the suffocating heat. Poolside at an apartment building in south Tampa. The dog days of August, 90 degrees. Five of their friends, ages five to eight, had joined them at the shallow end. The splashing armada had formed, and grown. The sounds of chatter were loud, the waters stirred by cannonball mini-plunges.
They’d all been back to school for a week or so.
I leaned forward on my pool chair. I rapped my cane for attention.
“Hey guys, how many of you are wearing masks at school?”
Seven wet hands went up.
“How many kids in your class are NOT wearing masks?”
The armada was restless. I figured I had another 20 seconds, max, of their focus. I pointed at each child for an answer.
One girl, about five years old, was treading water and chose to answer in sign language. She held up eight fingers.
I asked, “Out of how many kids in your class?” She held up all 10 fingers and then floated 10 toes to the surface.
“About half your class?”
“And how many of you are bothered by wearing masks at school?”
Seven stares. A girl began to float away on her noodle.
A pig-tailed child shook her head. “They protect us from COVID. We get to see our friends.” My older granddaughter looked askance, as if she were going to add, “Duh, Pops,” but restrained herself. She respects her elders, even when they ask silly questions.
In the pool, I’d lost the attention of the armada. Seaborn conflict had broken out.
“Hey! You’re using my noodle!”
“Nuh-uh, I got it first!”
In our school district of Hillsborough County, the board originally decided to require masks for staff and students, but with an opt-out for parents who opposed them. This caused the predictable chaos, and cases kept surging, with over 9,000 quarantines in the first seven days of school. At midweek, after a day of emotional wrangling, the school board voted (along with Miami-Dade) to require all staff and students to mask for 30 days.
The battle lines were drawn. Our school district was among those defying the governor. We wondered what would happen next, what Gov. Ron DeSantis would do. So did a national audience.
When I wrote recently about the Lone Ranger, the mask-wearing good guy of the Old West, I fired off a warning: At just the worst time, we Floridians (along with Texans) were being lethally caught up in the ambitions of a highly-driven politician bent on higher office. Hi yo, watch out, I said.
Since then, everything has tornadoed — COVID rates in Florida, infections among kids, mask wars among parents and educators, posturing by the governor. A couple of weeks ago, as the delta variant surged, the CDC urged a return to indoor masking where conditions warrant it. Florida and Texas alone were producing 40% of the nation’s infections. In fact, Gov. DeSantis’s mask-mocking buddy, Gov. Greg Abbott, himself caught COVID after a Texas-sized super-spreader. Around the same time, once-rare child infections began climbing worldwide, and the American Association of Pediatrics recommended masks for all schoolchildren.
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DeSantis, at the blazing hot epicenter of the surge, decided to defy them both. He said that the science to justify masks for kids was bad (i.e., the findings of the expert pediatric report); that masks were unhealthy and hindered learning; that kids hated them because they were uncomfortable; and that outcomes were similar with or without masks.
The similar-outcomes claim was immediately batted down by medical and disease experts who pointed out that it wasn’t even close — outcomes on classroom infection were up to 83% better with mask use. This echoes early, broader studies, that say most COVID infections and deaths, before and after vaccination, were preventable by simple mask mitigation.
Some of us thought DeSantis might content himself with denouncing mandates, scoring points with his base, and take another fund-raising trip. But he surprised even me, a long-time governor watcher. He doubled down, threatening to withhold pay for school officials who mandated masks in their schools. Soon after, the governor’s office admitted it might lack the authority to dock school pay.
DeSantis’s theatrics, naturally, led the national news, and set the Twitterverse aflame. Docking educators’ salaries for trying to protect their kids? Catnip! It was the attention DeSantis craved, certainly. But it embittered the national discourse immeasurably, here in Florida and elsewhere. A news clip of enraged male parents slamming a pro-mask school board member’s car window, yelling that they knew where he lived, and would find him, was as chilling as news reports get.
It brought to mind the power of one man’s determination in our fractured times. As with his mentor Donald Trump, it doesn’t seem to matter if there’s half-truth, or no truth, to a DeSantis claim. Or whether a legal move based on that claim is enforceable, or even legal. What matters is the attention a claim gets, the passions it stirs up, the tsunami of rage it unleashes.
It’s true, DeSantis alone didn’t start the fire. The conflagration of angry parents, pro and con masking, has been widespread, especially in the South. And of course, the mask wars got tangled up in the antivax wars (“Needle rape!” according to one demented sign). So the chaos has continued. Some governors who are pro-vaccine are anti-mask. Some health workers who are pro-mask in their clinics are anti-vaccine. It’s a flaming mess.
But people are at the mercy of the news they consume. For the steady consumers of Fox News —whose digital reach surpasses the New York Times — DeSantis has been the man. Reporter Steve Contorno of this newspaper found, through obtaining emails, that Fox News, beset by rivals and cooling on Trump, has all but trained their cameras on DeSantis fulltime these past months.
DeSantis appears on Fox whenever he wishes, often daily, and his views and every move are amplified by barkers Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson. Their steady stream of antimask (and earlier antivax) vitriol makes its way into the Facebook bloodstream, and the fever spikes. At the center of it, not just sneering, not just fulminating, but actually passing laws, is DeSantis, a governor with a national megaphone.
The White House has certainly noticed. When Press Secretary Jan Paski threw shade at DeSantis over kids and masks, DeSantis snapped that he didn’t want to hear a “blip” from a president who was himself the cause of the COVID surge — due to illegal immigrants spreading infection at the Mexican border 1,500 miles away. It was another dizzying twist of a non sequitur. Again, no matter. On Fox News, the border immigration theme was in full cry, and DeSantis’ gambit fit the flow.
As to kids “suffering” from mask use, the Association of Pediatrics says, in more measured language than mine, that the claim is nonsense. While studies show virtual learning did hinder kids’ learning, as we all could plainly see, masked in-person classes did not. Claims about masks breeding germs and spreading disease are anecdotal at best, wrong in the aggregate. Masks may be a nuisance, but they improve health.
Long before COVID, residents of China, Vietnam and other Asian nations, have worn masks to cut down on infectious diseases of all kinds. With all of this past year’s misfortunes, haven’t had a cold or the flu — knock wood — and I used to be gripped by la grippe two or three times a year, for miserable weeks at a time.
And of course, educated political leaders know this. Ron DeSantis actually reads, unlike his mentor. But his mentor is the Great White Father of antimaskery, the one who spent most of last year tweeting his macho disdain for maskers everywhere.
Leaders on a large stage have a responsibility to be careful with parents’ feelings. There may be a special reckoning for leaders who know better, who could disabuse a parent’s fears, and instead use those fears for political purposes.
With DeSantis, it’s a technique, going back to using his own cute kids in Trump-idolizing campaign commercials. In this latest caper, the game delivered a new twist: As DeSantis was threatening public school educators for requiring masks, the board at his own children’s private school in Tallahassee voted to … require masks. How that plays out — what phone calls will occur between parent/governor and principal — I don’t know, not my business. It’s private.
Those of us with kids and grandkids in public schools don’t love the sight of toddlers in masks. How do the kids themselves feel? On my grandfather-about-town beat, I’ve eavesdropped widely. The noisy back seat of a car yields unfiltered truths. And it’s my impression that kids are so used to masking it’s not even a logical question anymore. It’s been a natural, daily part of their reality for much of their short lives.
I could be wrong, and there could be exceptions, but I’ve yet to hear a full-throated kids’ rebellion against masks — equal to, say, the howls when mom or dad turns off Paw Patrol or Peppa Pig. I don’t say our grandkids like mask use, but they really like being in school in person. If the price they pay is a cloth covering during school hours, it’s a no-brainer to them. They’re used to learning rules that keep them safe.
We’re among the Tampa families who are here year round. In the summer months, one of our splurges is an occasional boat rental to float along Tampa’s channels. The riverfront is one of our town’s special attractions, with the flotillas of whimsical pirate-themed craft plying the colorful waterways. (Lately, the color’s been more rusty, thanks to the Red Tide. Is there a governor available to finance a solution to that with salary cuts? Sorry, I digress.)
The first boat rule we learned, and taught the kids, is that children must have their own fitted lifejackets. It’s a law. On the slow pontoon that we rent — more floating sofa than watercraft — the kids aren’t likely to be swept overboard. The odds are very high that children will remain safe. But we put the jackets on them just in case — and so does everybody else. Who can predict a rogue wave? An unexpected surge?
On the water, everyone waves at everyone going by, whatever flags may be flying. On these little river journeys, armadas of tourist-captained fishing vessels maneuver past flatboats powered by woozy tourists pedaling away on barstools, chugging at idle speed, ducking under Tampa’s bridges. We can see that children aboard other boats are always wearing their life jackets. Any one of us amateur boat owners or renters would be surprised not to see our most vulnerable passengers protected. Politics stop at the edge of the boat railing.
So, how’s this for an idea for a seafaring story?
A pirate movie, perfect for our Gasparilla town. In a sub-plot, the old-timey colonial Spanish governor announces that despite rough seas ahead, it will be illegal for passengers on his royal ships to be forced to wear life jackets. No, not even the tiny passengers, the niños! An infringement on passengers’ precious freedom! Lifejackets are scratchy, they’re uncomfortable, they spoil the enjoyment of the Spanish Main. Plus, kids so rarely fall overboard! No mas!
So the governor duly proclaims: Any boat captain trying to mandate life jackets will have his salary ah, docked. No booty for you, señor!
Here in Tampa, it would make a buccaneer laugh.
We’d rise up against the governor. It would take an armada to stop us.
Guest columnist Barry Golson covers the Tampa Bay senior scene. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Playboy, Forbes and AARP. He is the author of “Gringos in Paradise” (Scribner).