Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis shrugged off the criticism he faced after urging a group of Florida students to remove their face masks before a press conference.

"Bullying," the Republican told Fox News host Tucker Carlson on Thursday, is "forcing kids to wear masks" and "locking" them out of school.

"Bullying is kicking people out of work because of vaccine mandates," DeSantis added, pointing out that several lawmakers have switched their opinions because "the polling has changed."


DeSantis continued, "None of the adults were wearing masks, and it seemed to me that someone told those kids they had to do it. I just wanted to make it very clear: They do not need to be doing it. Obviously, in Florida, it's a free state. You can do it."

In a recorded exchange that has drawn political flak, DeSantis urged students from Tampa's Middleton High School, who were set to stand behind him for a press conference at the University of South Florida, to take their masks off.

"You do not have to wear those masks. Please take them off," DeSantis could be heard telling the students Wednesday. "Honestly, it's not doing anything. We've got to stop with this COVID theater. So if you want to wear it, fine, but this is ridiculous."

Among those who criticized him was Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat running for governor. "Ron doesn’t realize it’s not about the masks, it’s about him being an ass****," she said in a tweet.

The viral moment came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention unveiled relaxed COVID-19 guidelines Friday, including for masking. While his state allows individuals to decide whether to wear masks, DeSantis told Carlson, "There's no reason to do it for young and healthy kids, especially."

"In the state of Florida, we never had a mask mandate, of course," DeSantis said. "But our guidance from our health department is not to wear these cloth masks. And I think it needs to be said because people have been lied to for two years."

DeSantis said instructing children to wear masks and allowing adults to go maskless creates a "two-tier society."

"You have adults that are not masked, and then the students are all masked," DeSantis said. "Or you'll have a crowded restaurant, where everyone's having a good time, and they make the servers wear masks. I reject the two-tier society."


DeSantis, who is currently seeking reelection and is seen as a strong potential candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, has been a staunch opponent of COVID-19-related mandates, including vaccine and mask mandates. Even at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, with health officials pushing for the use of face coverings to help stop the spread of the virus, DeSantis refused to implement a mask mandate.

The governor issued an executive order July 30 of last year in which he threatened to withhold funding from schools violating parental decisions regarding face coverings being worn by children.