Walton lawyer dressed as grim reaper stops by Pensacola Beach to protest open beaches
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As if the energy on Pensacola Beach hasn't been odd enough lately, a Northwest Florida lawyer dressed as the grim reaper was among those visiting the beach Friday morning.
Santa Rosa Beach resident and attorney Daniel Uhlfelder has spread his message to four area beaches in the span of a month. He believes people are risking their health by going to the beach as the coronavirus continues to spread, and said he wears the grim reaper costume as a form of protest.
Uhlfelder is steadfast in his belief that it was irresponsible of the state government to re-open beaches so soon.
"People ask me when I'm going to stop wearing the grim reaper costumer," Uhlfelder said Friday. "I had my mom's birthday, she's in her 70s, this week. She lives a couple miles from us and my kids, who are 11 and 9, they couldn't hug my mother. Because she's quarantined. I mean, I will stop when my kids can hug my mother."
Uhlfelder has long been an advocate for customary beach use in Florida, but he's so against the idea of visiting beaches during the pandemic that he filed a lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in which he tried to invoke emergency powers to force the governor to close all beaches in early April.
"There's nobody that wants as many people to visit the beach as me," Uhlfelder said. "I've fought for that. But this is a pandemic. Social distancing on the beach, that's an oxymoron. People go to the beach to socialize."
As he shuffled through the sand in his robe, mask and scythe, Uhlfelder naturally attracted the attention of a lot of beach-goers. Some shared words with him in a non-confrontational way, while many others pulled out their cellphones to snap photos or capture videos.
Nashville resident Austin Wiseman was one of many to bask in the sun Friday morning as the grim reaper strolled across the shore. Wiseman said he disagrees with Uhlfelder's message.
"Everyone's entitled to their opinion, obviously, but the people who are out here on the beach are doing exactly what the government says to do," said Wiseman, who's in Pensacola visiting family. "There's no reason for me to feel like I should be afraid of dying."
Uhlfelder was flanked by a small team of videographers and publicists Friday during his Pensacola Beach visit. When he first debuted the grim reaper on Santa Rosa Beach in mid-April, he said he didn't expect the viral reaction he received. But he's leaning into it more these days as he hopes to spread his message to as many people as possible.
"I'm doing the tour now because people are asking me. I'm getting emails saying, 'Come to California, come to Europe,'" Uhlfelder said. "I'm astounded. I'm talking to people in Germany, France, Washington State, New York."
He said he has too many personal obligations to make this anything more than a regional stunt. Uhlfelder believes his hands are full enough in Florida.
Reactions to his unique form of protest have been all over the map, Uhlfelder said.
"I'm getting contacted by health care workers and people that have family members who have died from it, and they're encouraging," he said. "Then I get some people who are really rude. You do something like this and not everyone's going to agree with you."
The attorney was on Pensacola Beach for a little less than an hour Friday. He said that overall, he thinks his message was felt and he's glad people were polite.
Still, the majority to witness the stunt, like Wiseman, were not swayed away from the breezy weather, the white sands and the emerald waters Friday morning.
"It makes for a good photo, but the message that it communicates isn't really amusing because it just strikes fear into people," Wiseman said. "And if you want to strike fear into people, and that's your goal for this pandemic is using your platform to strike fear, you can do that, but I think there's a much better narrative that can be used."