The traditional Fourth of July fireworks displays that draw thousands of people to beaches and parks across Maine have been called off this year, a casualty of the coronavirus pandemic and bans on large gatherings.

That isn’t stopping Mainers from taking matters into their own hands.

In Sanford, a group of businesses and residents raised $10,000 in three days to put on a fireworks display that will be visible from across the city with no need for large gatherings. And retailers report a surge in sales of consumer fireworks by people who seem especially eager this year to celebrate July Fourth in their backyards.

Already, the boom in private fireworks sales is resulting in noise complaints in Portland other communities. Public safety officials, meanwhile, are concerned about fires and injuries as more people put on their own displays while the state is experiencing drought conditions. And the state’s top health official says he is concerned about transmission of the coronavirus among people who crowd together for fireworks displays.

Portland announced in May that it had canceled its Fourth of July celebration, which usually draws thousands of people to the Eastern Promenade. City Manager Jon Jennings said he was forced to make the decision because of the ban on large social gatherings and because budget constraints preclude the city from covering the expense this year.

In Old Orchard Beach, the Fourth of July fireworks show is canceled, as are the traditional Thursday night fireworks displays set off near the Pier and Palace Playland. York, Kennebunkport, Augusta, Eastport and Bar Harbor are among the communities that canceled all Fourth of July festivities. In Naples, the annual parade won’t be held on July 4, but the fireworks display has been rescheduled for Labor Day weekend.

Last year, hundreds of people crowded around Number One Pond in Sanford for the city’s annual Fourth of July fireworks display. People stood in long lines for close to an hour to place orders from local food trucks before the fireworks were set off from the middle of the pond.

After the city canceled the annual display, city Councilor Lucas Lanigan helped organize an effort to raise money for a private display on July 3. It will be launched at 9 p.m. from a mountainside overlooking Sanford and will be visible from almost anywhere in the city.

The reaction in Sanford has been one of “total excitement,” Lanigan said.

“It was an event a lot of people were going to miss,” he said. “They’re very happy to come out and safely celebrate and have a little bit of normal in the community.”

Lanigan said many people should be able to avoid crowds entirely by watching from their own yards. One firework will be launched at 8:30 p.m. so people can position themselves to watch when the show starts a half-hour later. A few parking lots – including at Smitty’s Cinema, the hospital and Pilot’s Cove – will be open for people to park during the display.

“It’s almost like a flashmob fireworks show,” Lanigan said. “I think it will be one of the safest events we can have with this amount of people.”

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control, said this week that the 50-person limit that Gov. Janet Mills put in place with an executive order still applies for fireworks displays. He said he is concerned about people gathering for fireworks displays, even though they are held outdoors.

“The overall risk may be lower than if it was an indoor type of gathering, but it doesn’t fall to zero,” Shah said during his briefing.

Shah said one of the biggest issues with crowds gathering for fireworks may not be during the actual event, but when people are coming and going from parking lots and cannot maintain physical distance.

“I would encourage anyone who is attending a gathering of that nature to space out as much as you can,” he said. “Introduce as much space as possible between your family’s blanket and the next blanket over.”

FIREWORKS SALES BOOMING

After months of staying home and with community celebrations canceled, Americans are rushing to buy consumer fireworks to put on their own displays. Across the consumer fireworks industry, retailers are reporting 100 to 200 percent increases in sales leading up to the Fourth of July holiday. Most expected to be sold out of fireworks before the holiday weekend.

“I’ve been in this business for almost 50 years, I have never, ever seen demand for consumer fireworks as high as I’ve seen this year,” said Bruce Zoldan, founder and CEO of Phantom Fireworks. “In every state, every city and every community across the country, people are buying consumer fireworks.”

Phantom Fireworks has stores in Scarborough and Holden that are seeing similar sales increases of 100 percent or more to other Phantom stores across the country, according to Zoldan.

The high demand for consumer fireworks came as a big relief for the industry, which pre-pandemic had predicted a 10 percent increase in sales because the Fourth of July is on a Saturday this year. When the pandemic hit and stores closed, many retailers were preparing for possible bankruptcy, Zoldan said.

“We did not know if we were going to be able to sell fireworks this year,” he said.

Zoldan believes the increased demand comes largely from people looking for entertainment in their own backyards after months of staying home. Many people aren’t traveling for vacation this summer and don’t want to miss out on celebrating the Fourth of July with fireworks even though most big displays have been canceled, he said.

“Americans certainly want to be outdoors, they want to be with friends and family,” he said. “They’re still reluctant to go out in big crowds, so they’re going with smaller ones. I think it will be part of the 2020 story.”

At Big Al’s Fireworks Outlet in Wiscasset, business has been brisk since the store reopened three weeks ago. Owner Allen Cohen – known locally at “Big Al” – said sales are up over this time last year and he expects them to increase more as the Fourth of July draws closer.

“You know what they say: ‘Business is booming,'” he said. “If you see the looks on the faces of the families that come in, the parents get as big a smile as the kids. It’s like being in an adult candy store.”

The enthusiasm for fireworks even before July 4 has generated noise complaints both in Maine and across the country. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said this week that the city is cracking down on illegal fireworks after record numbers of complaints about fireworks keeping residents up through the night.

Boston has reported a more than 2,000 percent increase in fireworks-related noise complaints and Baltimore recently launched an investigation into the increase in the use of fireworks there.

In Maine, 115 municipalities have ordinances that prohibit or restrict fireworks, including Portland. Several residents of Portland’s East End reported nuisance fireworks noise to the city’s Fix It! website. The residents complained of “constant fireworks from Kennedy Park” and loud noises resembling fireworks on multiple nights on Washington Avenue.

Zolan, from Phantom Fireworks, said retailers prefer their customers light fireworks closer to the Fourth of July to avoid noise complaints.

“Those that are negative about it, they probably look at fireworks as a pandemic right now,” he said. “The cure is July 5th. That will be the vaccine that stops the fireworks. We’ll be sold out and people will be on to something else.”

HIGH FIRE RISK

State fire officials are urging people who are using fireworks for the holiday to use extra caution to protect themselves and prevent fires.

In Westbrook, the fire department will not issue permits for fireworks for July 3 and 4 because of extremely dry conditions and high fire danger. This week the state stopped issuing open burn permits because of the extreme dry conditions.

“We’re really encouraging any use of consumer fireworks to be done safely and with a conscious effort to think about the hazards that do exist with that type of activity,” state Fire Marshal Joe Thomas sais.

Fire officials say anyone who is using consumer fireworks should make sure to follow manufacturer instructions and wear eye and hand protection.

The Fire Marshal’s Office reported nine people were taken by ambulance to medical facilities last year with injuries caused by fireworks, but says the actual number of injuries is likely higher. Those injuries were reported in people ranging from ages 1 to 66.

Last year, fire departments across the state reported 11 fires connected to fireworks, according to the Fire Marshal’s Office annual fireworks report to the Legislature. The Maine Forest Service also reported fireworks started a fire in Cumberland that burned 9 acres.

“Statistically, fireworks are not one of the leading causes of fires in Maine. However, it is still prudent to use extra caution this year because of the conditions,” Chief Forest Ranger Bill Hamilton said.

Hamilton said his concern about fireworks is heightened this year because of the fire conditions statewide. Maine has had more than 720 wildfires already this year. In 2016, there were 749 fires during the entire year, he said.

“I expect this to be the busiest fire season in the past decade,” he said.

After people are done with private fireworks displays, Hamilton recommends they walk around the property, particularly any forested areas downwind of the event. He said people should do a visual scan of the canopy of trees and the ground to look for anything that is smoldering, on fire or hot.


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