Beachgoers in northwest Florida hoping to take advantage of newly-opened shores amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic could be in for something of a shock.
Those who hit the beach in the Sunshine State’s Walton County this weekend will see joggers, swimmers, people on paddleboards . . . and perhaps a scythe-wielding Grim Reaper.
For Florida-based attorney Daniel Uhlfelder, donning the guise of a recognizable symbol of death was the only way to get people to listen. Opening Florida’s beaches too soon is a mistake, he said, and one that’ll cost lives as the county is still battling COVID-19.
“We have to take this into our own hands, unfortunately, because our leaders aren’t doing the right thing,” Uhlfelder told USA TODAY.
The father of two said he’ll be hitting several Walton County-area beaches.
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“This is a way in which I can convey the message that this virus is a deadly virus and that we need to think about this and take some time before we jump into these types of things,” he said. “This is a symbol of how serious this situation is.”
Florida, which enters the first phase of its reopening on May 4, has over 1,200 deaths and more than 33,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, according to data gathered by Johns Hopkins University.
The Walton County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday voted to reopen beaches in the county with no time restrictions, according to the Northwest Florida Daily News, part of the USA TODAY Network. Beaches reopen Friday with activities limited to “walking, jogging, fishing, swimming, paddleboarding, surfing and boating,” according to the outlet.
On April 21, Uhlfelder tweeted he was willing to travel to Florida beaches in a Grim Reaper costume. That tweet has been liked more than 63,000 times and retweeted more than 23,000 times.
“With this issue, I think people are shocked,” Uhlfelder said. “I get calls from all over the world like, ‘What are they doing in Florida? What’s the problem?’
“I think it resonates because it illustrates the absurdity of what’s going on in Florida. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic and people are worried about going to the beach and renting houses, rather than living.”
The lawyer of more than two decades has donned costumes before to protest people on beaches amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he wore a paint suit that looked like a hazmat suit to beaches in March.
Uhlfelder said he has two Grim Reaper costumes. He purchased one from Walmart and a friend made him a second one. He’ll carry a scythe, though he said the one he’ll use isn’t dangerous or sharp.
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Why not a regular protest? One with signs, instead of a costume?
“I can go in my suit and tie and people are going to laugh at me,” Uhlfelder said. “I mean, they may laugh at me anyway. Why Grim Reaper? I can’t think of any other symbol that’s so clearly tied to death.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gave some municipalities the OK to reopen beaches in mid-April, which led to people flocking to beaches in Jacksonville. On the other side of the country, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced some beaches in his state would temporarily close in response to what he called “disturbing” images of crowds.
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Uhlfelder, who in the past has advocated for public access to Walton County Beaches and, according to the Northwest Florida Daily News, said he wants to see beaches reopened. But he wants it done responsibly.
“I think we need to temporarily close the beaches until we get this under control. These half-measures, or certain hours and certain activities — that’s impractical and it’s not feasible and people won’t obey that,” he said. “In an ideal world, sure. Who do you know that’s going to go to the beach and social distance six feet from people?”
Uhlfelder and another attorney also sued DeSantis early in April hoping to get the governor to close all Florida beaches.
“Why am I doing this? Because we have to do something,” Uhlfelder said. “The message is not getting across that this a deadly virus. This is a public health emergency and we don’t need to be opening the floodgates to our area for people all over the world to continue to spread this virus.”