Lawyer appeals to force DeSantis to close beaches and impose restrictions to protect Floridians from COVID-19

By: - July 13, 2020 4:27 pm

Florida First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee. Credit: Michael Rivera, Wikimedia Commons

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has failed to adequately protect Floridians from a fast spreading virus that has killed at least 4,200 residents and sickened thousands of others, says lawyer Daniel Uhlfelder.

The Santa Rosa Beach lawyer on Monday asked the Florida First District Court of Appeal to force DeSantis to close dangerous beaches and issue stay-at-home orders to prevent further spread of COVID-19.

Uhlfelder made the accusations in a brief supporting an appeal, after a Tallahassee judge declined to take action in a lawsuit that Uhlfelder filed against the governor in March. At that time, there had been only 10 deaths and 563 cases of the virus among Floridians.

As of Monday, the Florida Department of Health reported 282,435 COVID-19 infections and 4,277 deaths, following a national record on Sunday with 15,300 new cases on a single day.

Florida has yet to issue a statewide order closing beaches and DeSantis was one of the last governors in the nation to impose a safer-at-home order issued after Uhlfelder filed the lawsuit. That order and other restrictions have since been loosened by the governor.

DeSantis launched a Re-Open Florida Task Force in late April, appointing no medical doctors or epidemiologists to the group.  Instead it was packed with leaders of the state’s largest corporations, Uhlfelder alleges.  DeSantis also ignored an open letter from 500 doctors in Jacksonville using him to postpone the Republican National Convention scheduled for late August.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a homecoming campaign rally on November 26, 2019 in Sunrise, Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

As a result DeSantis declared “a premature victory,’’ saying Florida was doing better than many other states, Uhlfelder alleges. The early opening earned praise from President Donald Trump. When criticized by the state’s news media, DeSantis blasted reporters for questioning his plan.

Uhlfelder noted that hospitals across the state are running out of beds and many of the state’s senior citizens are at high risk of suffering from the virus.

DeSantis has attributed the rise in infections to increased testing, and he’s defended his decision to reopen the state to boost the economy.

Leon County Circuit Judge Kevin J. Carroll encouraged Uhlfelder to appeal his initial decision against an order to force the governor to close beaches and impose other restrictions. Carroll said he was not sure he had the authority to substitute his judgement for that of the governor, but would “take great comfort in knowing that there is an appellate court that can tell me if I’ve got it wrong.’’

The judge also expressed the hope that the appellate court will address the question “expeditiously.’’

Uhlfelder, in his written brief in support of action to deal with the spread of the virus, accused DeSantis of having no regard for the safety of Floridians who will become sick and die.

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.

“The health and safety of all Floridians depend on the judicial branch to protect them from an executive who has put their lives in harm’s way,’’ Uhlfelder noted.

Uhlfelder has made headlines around the nation over the last few months, appearing in a Grim Reaper costume with a deadly looking black scythe to urge beach goers to take precautions against the virus.

He also appeared last week at a protest in front of the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee with a group of doctors.

In addition to Uhlfelder, Tallahassee lawyers Gautier Kitchen and Marie Mattox are among the attorneys handling the lawsuit.

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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.