'I couldn’t sleep at night if I didn’t do something'

Jewish lawyer dresses as the Grim Reaper to protest Florida beach reopenings

Daniel Uhlfelder, who has feuded with Mike Huckabee and sued state governor Ron DeSantis, says unusual demonstration inspired by his family’s Holocaust history

Daniel Uhlfelder protests Florida beach reopenings dressed as the Grim Reaper. (Courtesy/Daniel Uhlfelder via JTA)
Daniel Uhlfelder protests Florida beach reopenings dressed as the Grim Reaper. (Courtesy/Daniel Uhlfelder via JTA)

JTA — Last Friday, Daniel Uhlfelder traded in his usual suit and tie for a black hooded cape and a scythe and headed to the beach.

Dressed as the Grim Reaper, the 47-year-old Florida lawyer marched across the sand at Miramar Beach in the state’s panhandle as bikini- and surf short-clad beachgoers snapped photos.

Uhlfelder’s “Florida Grim Reaper Tour” is his way of taking a stand against the reopening of some Florida beaches even as the coronavirus continues to kill more than 1,000 Americans every day.

“There’s this utter and complete disrespect for human life,” Uhlfelder told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “So if I have to go as a Stanford-educated, highly successful, regular family man in a Grim Reaper suit to get a message across, I guess that’s the world we live in. It’s pretty sad.”

As Florida and some other states take steps toward reopening after weeks under lockdown, Uhlfelder’s stunt drew plenty of media attention. CNN, NBC, The Guardian and dozens of other outlets picked up the story.

The Santa Rosa Beach family and real estate lawyer is no stranger to the spotlight.

Last year, he feuded with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who was not a fan of Uhlfelder’s efforts to advocate for public beach access. Huckabee, who owns a house along a stretch of Florida coastline that Uhlfelder wants open for community access, ended up filing a complaint against Uhlfelder with the Florida Bar Association, saying the lawyer was harassing him on Twitter.

The quarrel attracted Uhlfelder plenty of media coverage and nearly 140,000 Twitter followers.

“He chose to attack me and come after me,” Uhlfelder said of Huckabee. “I don’t seek the spotlight, but I don’t shy away from it if there’s something I can do for good.”

Uhlfelder got the idea for the Grim Reaper tour in March, when he was looking to buy face masks at a local hardware store and the only thing he could find was an all-white painter coverall suit. He filmed himself as he marched to the beach wearing the get-up to protest the fact that the state had yet to close down.

A day later, he sued Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to close the beaches.

“It had an effect, and I guess [I] went to the next step,” he said.

That next step was dressing up as Death itself.

Uhlfelder bought a polyester Grim Reaper costume from Walmart, but realized it would be too hot in the Florida sun. So he approached a clothing designer friend, who offered to make one out of linen. He completed the look with a scythe he bought online.

Reactions from beachgoers at the four beaches he visited last week were “a mixed bag.”

“Not everyone was pleased,” he said. “I had some people make some weird comments.”

Daniel Uhlfelder. (Courtesy/Daniel Uhlfelder via JTA)

Uhlfelder is using the tour to raise money for a political action committee he created this year to support Democratic candidates across the country.

He drew inspiration for the tour from his family’s experience during the Holocaust. His grandfather, after whom Uhlfelder was named, escaped Nazi Germany as a teenager and was one of the few members of his family to survive. Uhlfelder’s father, Steve, helped persuade the Florida legislature to support the construction of a Holocaust memorial on the grounds of the state capitol in Tallahassee.

“My great-grandparents were murdered, and their ancestors were murdered in broad daylight,” Uhlfelder said. “And I’m not [comparing the two], but when you have 70-80,000 people dying in the wealthiest country on the planet, and it seems like nobody cares, I couldn’t sleep at night if I didn’t do something about this.”

Uhlfelder is a member both of a Reform synagogue and a Methodist church with his wife, Michelle, who is Christian, and their two kids.

“I don’t go to temple all the time, but I feel very Jewish,” he said.

Daniel Uhlfelder, dressed as the Grim Reaper, being interviewed on a Florida beach. (Courtesy/Daniel Uhlfelder via JTA)

The lawyer isn’t a fan of US President Donald Trump, whom he calls “crazy.” Nor does he like DeSantis, whom he refers to as a “Trump minion” who “thinks he’s the supreme leader of North Korea.”

But until recently, Uhlfelder was a Republican himself, serving on the Republican Party of Florida Jewish Leadership Advisory Council, a fact that has yet to be removed from his law firm bio. Huckabee’s bar complaint helped lead him to change his party affiliation earlier this year.

“After that and the state of our country, I just couldn’t do it anymore,” Uhlfelder said.

He isn’t the only one in his family who has had a change of mind recently. Though his wife was initially not too excited about the Grim Reaper gag, Uhlfelder says she’s come around.

“She’s good with it now,” he said. “She knows I have the right intentions.”

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