A Grim Reaper lawyer takes on Gov. DeSantis and tries to save beachgoers from the coronavirus

May 10, 2020 7:00 am

FL attorney Daniel Uhlfelder has become a familiar figure on Florida beaches, wearing a Grim Reaper suit and carrying a black sickle to remind residents they’re risking death from COVID-19. Credit: Daniel Uhlfelder.

Daniel Uhlfelder, the brash lawyer who recently sued Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in an unsuccessful effort to close Panhandle beaches crowded with tourists and residents during the pandemic, has a familiar name.

In Tallahassee, his father, Steve Uhlfelder, now 74 and partially retired after more than 40 years of lobbying and politicking, has been widely known in government circles for years.

Florida attorney Daniel Uhlfelder facing cameras.
Credit: Daniel Uhfelder.

Daniel, 47, is practicing law in Santa Rosa Beach in Walton County near a stretch of beaches long popular at spring break and through the summer months.

He’s also become a familiar figure on various Florida beaches wearing a Grim Reaper suit and carrying a black sickle to remind everyone that they are risking death from the coronavirus.

“If someone had told me a few weeks ago I’d be wearing a Grim Reaper suit, I’d have said they are crazy,’’ Uhlfelder said.

He now realizes the outfit is attracting all sorts of attention and doing much more to spread his concerns about the virus than merely filing a lawsuit.

He’s been on CNN, Saturday Night Live, many other television programs and written up in papers all over the country.  His message is getting across.  Not everyone likes it.

“My phone rings all day,’’ he said. “My question is what is wrong with Florida and the governor.’’

Some of the calls are threats from Trump supporters and others who want to keep the beaches open to all.

This is the first time he ever sued a governor.

He has met a lot of Florida governors and worked with several of them.  He got to know former Gov. LeRoy Collins many years ago, traveled with Gov. Lawton Chiles and did some work for Gov. Bob Graham, Gov. Jeb Bush and Gov. Charlie Crist so he has a pretty good idea what to expect from the state’s leaders.

“This state is a great place but the people I’m used to being around were gentlemen who cared about our beaches and human lives,’’ he noted.  “Every big decision now is being run through the White House and that is scary.  He (DeSantis) is a dangerous person.’’

Too many of Florida’s leaders are scared of President Donald Trump, he believes.  DeSantis flew to Washington D.C., to get permission from Trump to open up part of the state recently, he noted.

Earlier this year when the governor refused to close the crowded Panhandle beaches in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Daniel Uhlfelder, filed suit against the governor and asked Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll of Tallahassee to order the beaches closed to save lives.

The judge declined, but thanked Uhlfelder for his concern for the people of Florida and urged him to appeal his ruling to the First District Court of Appeal because it involved important issues that ought to be reviewed by a higher court.

That apparently didn’t sit very well with attorneys representing the governor.

A day after the hearing ended with Uhlfelder saying he would appeal, Uhlfelder got an email from Nicholas Primrose, the governor’s deputy general counsel, saying he wanted to talk to him about the appeal.

Uhlfelder says he thought the lawyer wanted to discuss a potential settlement, but was surprised when Primrose tried to talk him into dropping the appeal and suggested he might seek some sort of sanctions from the Florida Bar and attorney fees if he didn’t.

Uhlfelder made it clear he would pursue an appeal of the judge’s ruling and says Primrose then told him some people were urging him to file a complaint against Uhlfelder with the Florida Bar.

“It was a threat,’’ Uhlfelder said. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, I know when somebody’s threatening me. He was trying to bully me.’’

He said Primrose told him he’s also been following his comments on Twitter, a comment that made Uhlfelder wonder why he wasn’t spending the time handling state business.

Primrose refused to comment when contacted, saying he would refer questions to the governor’s communications staff, which did not return a request for comment.

Outside his law office these days the beaches are crowded with beer drinkers just like a usual spring break.

There is no sign that anyone is paying attention to distancing and the need to avoid close contact to guard against catching a deadly virus.  Out-of-state cars are crowding the roads as usual at a time when many businesses elsewhere have been closed.

“My mother is sitting at home and can’t even hug her grandchildren,’’ Uhlfelder noted.  “But we let everybody flood the area.’’

Meanwhile he’ll keep on wearing his outrageous costume, crafted for him by a friend, for the “Grim Ripper Tour.’’

“It’s shaming people who are on the beach in the middle of a pandemic,’’ he said.  “I am an American citizen peacefully and non-violently expressing my opinion in a legal forum.’’

His father has a few reservations.

“He’s more aggressive than I would be, but I lived in a more balanced world than we have now,’’ the elder Uhlfelder said when contacted.

“He really believes he is on the right side of this issue. He’s got a lot of guts, but I don’t always agree with him.  When he takes strong stands, he takes strong risks. He’s more of a risk taker than I am, but he has a good heart.’’

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Lucy Morgan
Lucy Morgan

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lucy Morgan was chief of the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times capital bureau in Tallahassee for 20 years, retiring in 2006 and serving as senior correspondent until 2013. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate named its press gallery after Morgan, in honor of her two decades covering the Legislature.