Florida’s mask foes shrug off national TV ‘bullies’ poking fun at them
Cristina Gomez said she isn't embarrassed about being mocked on national television by Jimmy Fallon, Whoopie Goldberg, Stephen Colbert and other pundits for her acerbic, finger-waving, anti-mask rant last month at the Palm Beach County Commission meeting heard ‘round the world.
“They’re bullies looking for laughs," the unemployed West Palm Beach resident said. “That’s OK. I have thick skin."
Few people know Gomez, 28, by name. But millions know her by the trending hashtag “Angry Florida Woman” and viral video clip of her impassioned public comments before commissioners passed a countywide mask mandate on June 23.
In a two-minute stream of consciousness, she threatens the county’s health director with a citizen's arrest “for crimes against humanity,” tells commissioners they belong “in a psyche ward” and rails about the devil, Bill Gates, Hillary Clinton, pedophiles, 5G cameras and “the deep state.”
Co-starring in a viral montage on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” was a supporting cast led by Arlindo “Butch” Dias, an engineer who pointed at the Stars and Stripes behind county commissioners and screamed, “I’d die for that flag!”
Cindy Falco-DiCorrado, a former Boynton Beach advisory board member, is seen in a “Trump Girl” shirt calling the coronavirus crisis “a planned-demic” and asking “where do you derive the authority to regulate human breathing?”
Theresa Roberts sneered as she compared the mask mandate to Nazi Germany forcing Jews to wear a star. And Beth Bohon launched this memorable salvo: “I don’t wear a mask for the same reason I don't wear underwear: Things gotta breathe.”
The internet and late-night television went wild.
“That was like Crazytown," stunned co-host Sonny Hostin said on ABC’s “The View,” while co-host Meghan McCain compared it to “the rantings of someone at an airport bar."
A Twitter parody mixed memorable soundbites with footage of exasperated reactions from characters in the hit NBC show “Parks and Rec.” Media outlets from as far away as England and Dubai carried stories about Florida residents linking a “devil’s mask law to the deep state."
“Yes, it appears America isn’t just dealing with a deadly strain of coronavirus, it's also dealing with a deadly strain of stupidity," Trevor Noah said on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”
For local leaders trying to stem the coronavirus pandemic, the unwanted publicity — 20 years after the 2000 presidential election fiasco — gave the county another black eye.
“The images you saw on (June 23) of people loudly proclaiming that they're not going to wear masks were a poor reflection of our community and they don't reflect our community," State Attorney Dave Aronberg said three days later at a coronavirus briefing.
“What does reflect our community" he said, “is all the people out there who are socially distancing, who are wearing masks, who are taking care of one another. That’s Palm Beach County. Those are the people whose images should be shown worldwide."
‘We are just normal people’
Despite the protests, officials say the mask mandate is widely supported in the county, where coronavirus cases have spiked in recent weeks, helping make South Florida one of the national hotspots of the deadly respiratory disease.
And since early April, scientists have been unified about the effectiveness of facial coverings significantly reducing the transmission of COVID-19, with recommendations coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Johns Hopkins University.
“It’s really unfortunate the response we got for such a common sense mandate to happen in Palm Beach County," Dr. Sam Fahmy of Boca Raton Regional Hospital said on CNN.
“We know scientifically that masks are proven to prevent infection and transmissions from one person who is sick to another. The fact that people are fighting this hard against wearing masks is really disheartening."
But many protesters who opposed the mask mandate weren’t happy with the publicity, either.
They thought it focused too much on the most sensational comments and overlooked the movement’s larger messages of resisting government overreach and protecting personal freedoms.
“To be painted in the media like we are crazy people is really annoying," said Josie Machovec, a Boca Raton homemaker, who said the mask law “unconstitutionally” mandates that citizens wear “medical devices.”
“We’re just normal people. We just want to keep ourselves healthy in the way that we feel is best."
Wary of the ‘snitch line’
She said many of the protesters found each other on the Facebook page of a grassroots group called South Florida Freedom Advocates.
They include doctors, lawyers, nurses, even Junior League members. Many of them take cues from President Donald Trump, who refuses to wear a mask in public.
Some have attended public meetings and protests to decry coronavirus-related restrictions in other Florida communities. Many are anti-vaccine activists.
A pinned post on the group’s page warns viewers about “a snitch line” — and it lists a phone number for Palm Beach County’s COVID Education Compliance team, formed last month to take complaints about businesses that fail to follow social distance and safety guidelines and help them conform.
But the South Florida Freedom Advocates Facebook page encourages members to call the “snitch line” to “blast out the businesses and individuals that discriminated against them."
Machovec, one of four plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed June 30 to overturn the county’s mask mandate, said she can’t wear a mask because she suffers from asthma. She said she gets harassed by customers and employees when she goes shopping at Costco.
Angelique Contreras said she can’t wear a mask because of anxiety stemming from abuse she suffered earlier in her life. She said she shouldn’t have to explain herself to shop owners who confront her about not wearing a mask every time she goes shopping.
In a recent tweet, Contreras blamed the mask mandate on her asthmatic husband getting fired from his job at a restaurant.
‘Slaves’ comment preceded resignation
On May 29, workers at the Sunshine Flea Market in suburban Lake Worth Beach called Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputies after Gomez (“Angry Florida Woman”) and her mother refused their order to leave the store. Gomez said she got kicked out for not wearing a mask.
The next day, Gomez returned to the flea market to stage a protest in the parking lot. She and Falco-DiCorrado, a 61-year-old grandmother, were both arrested on trespassing charges.
It was Gomez’s 28th birthday. Falco-DiCorrado’s arrest that day was captured on video.
In 2017, Falco-DiCorrado resigned from the Boynton Beach Community Redevelopment Agency, a volunteer advisory board, after being accused of making racially insensitive remarks during a public discussion about sanctuary cities.
Falco-DiCorrado allegedly told a resident at the meeting to speak “better English” and allegedly told black residents, “You’re lucky we brought you over as slaves, or else you’d be deported, too.”
At the time, Falco-DiCorrado said her comments were misunderstood and she didn’t mean any harm.
‘I don't see anything crazy’
As for the viral video clips from the June 23 County Commission meeting, she said she wasn’t offended about being mocked on TV and in social media.
“When I watch it, I don't see anything crazy," Falco-DiCorrado said. “I see logic. I see people asking honest questions and being human. But I know they put the precursor there, like CNN did, to say, ‘Oh look at these crackpots.’ I hope it wakes people up."
After video of the meeting went viral, Gomez said some critics tweeted her mug shot from her May 30 arrest.
A former bank teller and bar server, Gomez said she spoke from her heart and not from a script. She said she was surprised her remarks received so much attention.
“I have no credentials. Why don't you let the world hear a doctor tell about how bad a mask is," she said, referring to comments at the June 23 meeting by Dr. Heidi Schaeffer of Miami, who questioned the effectiveness of masks.
“All of a sudden everyone starts texting me. ‘You’re on The View. You’re on the Late Show with Jimmy Fallon,’ and celebrities are posting me on their Instagram," Gomez said, referring to critical comments by Foxx and comedian Lil Duval.
Dias, the West Palm Beach man who identified himself on the video as “a patriot” before screaming at county commissioners, said some co-workers are mad at him because of the publicity he received. He asked that the name of the public agency he works for not be mentioned in this story.
Dias, 61, said it was the first time he spoke at a public meeting. If he sounded angry, he said, that’s because he was offended that it seemed as if commissioners had already made up their minds before voting to pass the mask mandate and didn’t care what the protesters were saying.
‘Is this some political stunt?’
Part of Dias’ speech was singled out by Colbert on “The Late Show:” After Dias is shown screaming that he “would die for that Constitution,” Colbert quipped, “Well, congratulations. If you don’t wear a mask, you got a good shot at it."
Dias shrugged it off. “I don't watch any of that garbage," he said.
“They basically made us look like a bunch of kooks. But it’s funny that everybody that had a patriotic view loved it, everybody who had a Christian view loved it. Only the ones that had liberal views hated it."
County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, a frequent target of the protesters because of her staunch support for coronavirus protections, said she was disappointed that people who identified themselves as doctors and nurses spoke against the mask mandate.
“The Florida Medical Association put out a statement begging local governments to take action and implement mask ordinances and here they have doctors facing us and saying it’s all nonsense," said McKinlay, whose district includes farming communities around Lake Okeechobee that have been hit hard by the pandemic.
“They follow their nonsense claims by standing in the back of our room raising a gigantic Trump 2020 flag. It's like, Really? What is this all about? Is this really what's best for the public or is this some political stunt?"
Dismissing claims by the protesters that mask supporters want to vote Trump out of office, McKinlay pointed out that at least two Republican mayors in Florida — Carlos Gimenez of Miami-Dade County and Lenny Curry of Jacksonville — put mask mandates in place.
‘We are not going away’
A handful of the same “pro freedom” fighters showed up at the most recent county commission meeting on Tuesday. Mayor Dave Kerner stopped the meeting at one point and threatened to remove one person from the room because she wasn’t wearing a mask.
“I want them to realize we are not going away. We are not just going to accept their mandate," said Machovec, who appears in some of the viral video montages, including the “Parks and Rec” parody. “They are not kings and queens. They are elected officials who need to be held accountable."
Like many other protesters, Machovec said she doesn’t know of any friends or relatives who have contracted COVID-19. “The truth of the matter is the survival rate of this virus is 96.6 percent, so I have a higher chance of dying in a car accident than I do from contracting COVID-19," she said.
County Commissioner Gregg Weiss said he was disappointed that the publicity gave the world an inaccurate portrayal of how the community feels about coronavirus precautions.
“This is a small minority of people who live in Palm Beach County. They are entitled to represent their views and beliefs, but they don't represent what the majority of Palm Beach County believes and what the majority of our residents are concerned about," he said.
On the talk-show “The View,” host Whoopi Goldberg offered a deal for the Palm Beach County mask protesters.
“You don't want to wear a mask? We just need to have your name and phone number so when you get sick and you go rushing to the hospital for help, people can actually say, ‘Oh, you're the one who said don't wear a mask and here you are (because) you're ill,’” she said.
“I want to run it into your face because that means that you, because of your insanity, have taken time away from a doctor who could be working on someone who did do the right thing who got it anyway. ... Please don't be ridiculous. Just do this. Nobody cares about your political vision. We're talking about your health."
Staff writer Hannah Morse contributed to this story.
This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.