“Those students should have been comfortable wearing a mask,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky said on MSNBC. “It is absolutely their choice.”

Her comments come one day after the Republican governor told the group of students, who were standing behind the podium where he was set to speak at the University of South Florida: “You do not have to wear those masks, I mean please take them off.”

“Honestly, it’s not doing anything, we’ve gotta stop with this Covid theater. So, if you want to wear it, fine. But this is ridiculous,” DeSantis had said on Wednesday. Some of the students took off their masks while others left them on.

Hillsborough County School District told CNN the students at the event were from Middleton High School. According to the CDC, Hillsborough County’s community spread of Covid-19 is high and wearing masks indoors is recommended.

The comments underscored DeSantis’ fierce opposition to pandemic mitigation measures such as masks, vaccine mandates and managed shutdowns. The Florida governor has gained more attention than perhaps any Republican leader in the country by flouting the scientific community’s advice and keeping Florida open, earning him a spot atop the list of future GOP presidential contenders.

Last summer, DeSantis signed an executive order barring schools from requiring students to wear masks, and last month, he said he favored the ability of parents to sue schools that bucked his ban on mask mandates.

And despite a raft of backlash to his Wednesday comments, DeSantis continued to rail against Covid-19 mitigation measures at a press conference in Panama City on Thursday.

“What we’ve seen, particularly over the last two years, has been a very politicized medical establishment and they kind of have certain views. A lot of times they’re informed by political ideology, unfortunately,” the governor claimed.

Florida has surpassed 70,000 deaths from Covid-19 after its latest surge in hospitalizations amid the Omicron variant, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Although the CDC recently updated its masking guidance, masking is still considered a “critical public health tool,” according to the agency’s website.

Per the agency’s updated mask guidance, more than 70% of the US population was in a location with low or medium Covid-19 community levels. For those areas, there is no recommendation for indoor masking unless you are at potential “increased risk” for Covid-19 and if so, the CDC recommends talking to your health care provider about wearing a mask.

At all levels, the CDC recommends people get vaccinated and boosted, and get tested if they have symptoms.

CNN’s Anokhi Saklecha contributed to this report.

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