How is it that we’re on day three of this non-story? His comments to the kids about unmasking weren’t even the newsiest soundbite from that press conference!
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis admonished a group of students for wearing face masks at an indoor event Wednesday, saying it was time to stop what he called “this COVID theater.” The Republican governor has been a fierce opponent of mask and vaccine mandates. https://t.co/TA65UER4iw pic.twitter.com/TmMKgbHOVC
— The Associated Press (@AP) March 3, 2022
Some of them laughed, befitting his tone, and he explicitly told them that it’s fine if they want to keep their masks on. To read the coverage afterward about “bullying” and hear some of the parents’ reactions, you would think he had literally ripped the masks off of their faces.
Ron DeSantis pissed this mother off! She is going off. This maskless lady is outraged that Ron DeSantis told her son he didn't have to wear a mask! pic.twitter.com/59AYrnSbKP
— Terrence K. Williams (@w_terrence) March 3, 2022
At worst he was “kidding on the square” with them, ribbing them a little to get them to unmask because he didn’t want to be stuck in a photo op with masked kids. He’s too invested politically in Florida’s image as a paradise of post-COVID normalcy to be comfortable with that. And after he spent the last eight months battling to minimize the pressure on Floridians to get vaccinated, it’s admittedly odd to see him turn around and pressure some kids on a different COVID precaution. It’s not just about mandates, remember: DeSantis was so sensitive to criticism from the right that he was “selling out” by encouraging people to get vaxxed early last year that now he won’t even say whether he’s personally been boosted. In the free state of Florida, you mind your own business about what other people do or don’t do with respect to COVID. Unless they’re wearing masks, in which case feel free to confront them and mock them for engaging in “theater.”
But the hypocrisy goes both ways. Since when does the CDC stand up for personal choice with respect to precautions against COVID?
I asked CDC Director Rochelle Walensky today about now-viral moment of Gov DeSantis scolding students wearing masks: “Those students should have been comfortable wearing a mask if it makes them more comfortable…It's absolutely their choice.” @Miguelnbc has more @NBCNightlyNews pic.twitter.com/aOGEw714qe
— Kate Snow (@tvkatesnow) March 3, 2022
I don’t recall any appeals from Walensky or Fauci about personal choice when states were laying down mask mandates, particularly mandates in schools on kids at near-zero risk of severe illness. I don’t recall any opposition either to the sort of rhetorical pressure that DeSantis engaged in with the kids when it came to leaning on the unvaccinated to get their shots. For a solid year, pro-vaxxers like me have considered it an almost evangelical duty to browbeat vaccine skeptics into doing the right thing for themselves and their families. I can’t force them to make the right choice but I can petition them to follow the science.
The unvaccinated haven’t been “comfortable” having the vaccinated squawk at them 24/7 for the past year, but so what? Sometimes persuasion is about making people uncomfortable.
That’s what DeSantis did. He was right that, in the age of Omicron, cloth masks are more a matter of “theater” than meaningful protection. You can dislike his approach in this case because of the power dynamics involved in the governor of a state kiddingly dressing down a bunch of teenagers in front of reporters but it’s inane for Walensky to criticize an attempt to persuade on grounds that the subject has a choice. It’s *because* people now have a choice about which precautions to take that persuasion matters.
Although some simply won’t be persuaded, even by the CDC. This tweet urging others to ignore the new relaxed guidance confirms that, for hardcore COVID hawks, “follow the science” just means taking maximum precautions in perpetuity:
Indoors in a public place?
Wear a mask.
Ignore the guidance.
It's the right thing to do. pic.twitter.com/N2IjpC9EYH
— Diana Zicklin Berrent (@dianaberrent) March 2, 2022
As further evidence that the public health bureaucracy’s support for the right to persuade runs only one way, here’s an unusually aggressive play by Vivek Murthy to shut down skeptics:
A request for information from the surgeon general’s office demanded that tech platforms send data and analysis on the prevalence of Covid-19 misinformation on their sites, starting with common examples of vaccine misinformation documented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The notice asks the companies to submit “exactly how many users saw or may have been exposed to instances of Covid-19 misinformation,” as well as aggregate data on demographics that may have been disproportionately exposed to or affected by the misinformation.
The surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, also demanded information from the platforms about the major sources of Covid-19 misinformation, including those that engaged in the sale of unproven Covid-19 products, services and treatments.
The government requesting aggregated data, which tracks population-wide trends without identifying individual users, is one thing. The government asking tech platforms to identify individual purveyors of misinformation is another. Part of the reason those kids with DeSantis are still masking now, despite their tiny personal risk from COVID and widespread immunity in the U.S., is because for much of the pandemic it was considered misinformation to believe that masks were doing more harm than good to children. That misperception is so durable that it’ll be difficult to dislodge among COVID hawks even with the CDC now backing off of school mask mandates. In fact, I’m sure part of the reason DeSantis is being hammered for pleading with those kids to unmask is because some of his critics *still* believe that it’d be irresponsible, even dangerous, for them to do so. Essentially he’s being accused of pushing misinformation even though he’s closer to the truth than his critics are.
I’ll leave you with this surprising bit of wisdom from another recent interview Walensky did. As amazingly as the vaccines have performed, it’s undeniable that expectations were set too high when they first debuted as experts led Americans to believe they’d bring the pandemic to a rapid end. And it’s unusual to see a top COVID messenger admit that.
Strikingly frank answer from CDC director Walensky on them being too bullish on vaccines early on
“Nobody said ‘waning’ when this vaccine is going to work, ‘oh well maybe it’ll wear off.’ Nobody said ‘well, what if…it’s not as potent against the next variant’”
H/t @adamcancryn pic.twitter.com/yPj2VKKfj4
— Alex Thompson (@AlexThomp) March 4, 2022