CDC director rebukes Ron DeSantis for scolding high school students over masks

"Those students should have been comfortable wearing a mask," the CDC head said. "It is absolutely their choice"

By Jon Skolnik

Published March 4, 2022 12:09PM (EST)

Ron DeSantis and Rochelle Walensky (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ron DeSantis and Rochelle Walensky (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tore into Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday after the Republican scolded a group of high school students wearing masks at a press conference.

"Those students should have been comfortable wearing a mask," Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in an MSNBC interview. "It is absolutely their choice."

Walensky's comments come just a day after a Wednesday press conference held by DeSantis, who berated a group of high school students standing behind him for wearing face masks. 

"You do not have to wear those masks," DeSantis told them. "Please take them off. Honestly, it's not doing anything. We've gotta stop with this COVID theater. So if you wanna wear it, fine, but this is ridiculous." 

RELATED: Judge orders Florida to stop enforcing Ron DeSantis' school mask mandate ban


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The students were reportedly from the Hillsborough County School District, which according to CDC data, is seeing a higher COVID-19 case rate than the national average. 

Throughout most of the pandemic, DeSantis has been a fierce opponent of just about every common sense COVID health measure, striking down mask and vaccine mandates for schools and businesses, even when the coronavirus ran rampant through the Sunshine State. Even the state's surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, who was appointed by DeSantis, is an adamant objector to masks. 

This week, Ladapo claimed that masks offer "zero benefit" when it comes to public health, accusing the CDC of using "shaky studies" and "shaky methods" to demonstrate their efficacy. 

"[Masks] are not saving lives," he told reporters. "What saves lives, frankly, is freedom to speak, freedom to find truth. What saves lives is immunity, early treatment. Early treatment saves lives. And being as healthy as you can."

RELATED: Florida's new surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, has ties to fringe group pushing bogus COVID cures

Following DeSantis' Wednesday presser, the governor defended his choice to publicly chide the group of teenagers, attacking the "corrupt and biased legacy media" for accusing him of bullying.

"While in Tampa, I told a group of students masks were ridiculous, and they didn't have to wear them if they didn't want to," he wrote in an email. "Predictably, the leftist propagandists in our media had a meltdown and called me a 'bully' for allowing children to breathe fresh air."

In response, Nikki Fried, Florida's Democratic agriculture commissioner who is also running for governor, said that "Ron doesn't realize it's not about the masks, it's about him being an a**hole."


Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik is a staff writer at Salon. His work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Baffler, and The New York Daily News.

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