A Wednesday news conference at the Tampa campus hosted by Gov. Ron DeSantis for a grant to USF’s cybersecurity program became trending on Twitter, but not because of his announcement.
DeSantis presented a $20 million grant from the Florida Department of Education to Cyber Florida, the Florida Center for Cybersecurity at USF. However, the news was overshadowed by his remarks to a group of high school students regarding their decision to wear masks. This sparked nationwide attention and worries from some USF students.
When he arrived at his podium, DeSantis directly addressed the students standing with him after noticing they had masks on.
“You do not have to wear those masks, I mean please take them off,” he said. “Honestly, it’s not doing anything and we have to stop with this COVID theater. So, if you want to wear it, fine. But this is ridiculous.”
A video of this confrontation went viral on social media platforms, as it was No. 1 trending on Twitter on Wednesday afternoon.
Some students felt DeSantis’ remarks were unnecessary, such as senior Aaron Mittelstadt.
Mittelstadt said that while he believes the comments made by the governor won’t cause major damage, they were unprovoked and disrespectful to the students.
“It would have been best for him to not say that because he was just adding his extra two cents that was unnecessary on the matter,” he said. “I just think it’s a little petty and opinionated. I’d say it’s not the most polite thing to really say to someone, it’s just kind of indecent to criticize something like that.”
When speaking to the students, DeSantis said masks aren’t “doing anything.” This claim has been debunked by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as reports have shown masks are up to 83% effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
This misinformation is worrying for sophomore Katherine Kozlowski, as she said those in charge should set better examples and care about the health of others.
“A leader is supposed to shape their community, not break it. DeSantis is turning a personal choice to wear a mask into a political statement to further his anti-mask agenda,” she said.
“USF, as well as the entire state of Florida, needs a leader that cares about the citizens’ health, and DeSantis has clearly shown that he is not that leader.”
Other students, such as public health major Claire Cunningham, found his leadership style to be questionable as well. She said the comments from DeSantis were unprofessional, and wearing a mask shouldn’t be publicly mocked.
“It’s very harmful to the community. COVID is definitely still a threat and people are definitely still dying from COVID,” Cunningham said.
“It is not mandated, so if you don’t want to wear a mask I think that’s a personal preference. But publicly discouraging it and humiliating people publicly for wearing a mask [makes] a really bad role model for a politician on a state level.”
Due to the lack of action taken throughout the pandemic by DeSantis, junior Ravin-Marie Perkins said they are not shocked by his comments as they reflect what he has stood for in the past.
“Personally, I’m not surprised that DeSantis would accuse mask-wearing students of performing ‘COVID theater’ seeing his past COVID policies,” Perkins said. “Seeing how careless he was throughout the pandemic with lax mask mandates and vaccination policies makes this moment seem like a natural progression of his mentality.”
Wearing a mask is essential for some students to do in order to protect others around them, according to junior Kayla Williams. She said mask-wearing should be based on preference as every student’s living condition varies, and no one should feel uncomfortable by doing what makes them feel safe.
“[He wasn’t] respecting the fact that if they wanted to wear the mask, they can and that’s their choice,” she said. “He made it seem like, ‘Oh, it’s your choice,’ but then he was really demeaning about it.
“You can’t shame people out of wearing [masks] if that’s what makes them feel comfortable. You also don’t know what’s going on and their home life if they have an immunocompromised family member that lives with them and they want to protect them for that reason.”
Perkins said the message DeSantis is sending by making those comments is harmful to both the USF community and the country as a whole.
“As someone who moved to Florida from Maryland for school, there’s a huge difference between how often people here wear masks and people not getting the vaccine when it became available,” Perkins said.
“DeSantis leads by example and confirms to the people there or watching at home that we shouldn’t be concerned with a virus that’s still going around. He’s actively telling people wearing masks that they’re somehow moralizing something he’s downplayed for two years now.”
Additional reporting done by Assistant News Editor Michael Mardones.