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Fireworks industry fizzles with COVID cancellations

  • Katrina Wilson of Rindge, a sales associate at the Atlas Pryrovision Rindge store, stocks shelves, a daily grind as the most popular sales week of the year hits the store that's already seen demand through the roof. Staff photo by Ashley Saari—

  • The Atlas Pyrovision retail store in Rindge is ready for a busy week leading up to July 4. Copyright Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Staff photo by Ashley Saari—

  • The Atlas Pyrovision retail store in Rindge is ready for a busy week leading up to July 4. Copyright Monadnock Ledger-Transcript. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Staff photo by Ashley Saari—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 7/1/2020 2:07:20 PM

More people than ever are purchasing fireworks for backyard displays as the Fourth of July approaches and almost all municipal displays have been canceled. But the boost in consumer sales isn’t enough to buoy an industry that has been hit hard by those canceled events.

Steve Pelkey, CEO of Atlas Pyrovision, which provides consumer fireworks sales from its Rindge storefront and puts on professional displays around the world, said the two halves of his business have been impacted in profoundly different ways.

The storefront, he said is booming.

Sales of class B fireworks, the kinds suitable for backyard celebrations, are up by 40 percent compared to last year, as people prepare for their own Fourth of July celebrations. And about one-third of those customers are planning to light off their own fireworks for the first time, showing that people are on the lookout for alternatives, with town fireworks and festivals canceled, Pelkey said.

Nationally, fireworks sellers are seeing similar boosts. Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, said sellers are reporting increases of twice or three times the sales they made last year, with the boom starting around Memorial Day, and still going strong.

“The early sales, I think that’s just all related to the pandemic. We’ve never seen sales that strong. People have been in lockdown, staying in their homes, for three months now. They can’t go to a movie theater, festival or event, and they’re looking for some affordable entertainment at home,” Heckman said.

But for Atlas, consumer sales are only about 30 percent of their business, Pelkey said. The rest is professional displays, which have been devastated by the lack of outdoor events. Those canceled municipal displays would normally be a huge portion of their July business, Pelkey said. But they’ve all dried up.

“Typically, we’d be doing around 230 municipal displays. This year, we’re doing three,” Pelkey said.

And there’s only one Fourth of July per year. That’s a problem for display companies that depend on the holiday for up to 70 percent or more of their yearly business, Heckman said.

“For display companies, the Fourth of July isn’t just their bread and butter. It’s the whole bag of groceries,” Heckman said. “It’s all about the Fourth of July. And they don’t get a do-over. There is no other holiday that’s going to provide that same volume of business.”

Pelkey said Atlas has lined up some small, private events, such as company parties or displays for families for the holiday, that they wouldn’t have had time for in any other year, but the number isn’t comparable to what they would be providing in municipal displays. Municipal Fourth of July displays make up about 60 percent of Atlas’ display income, he said.

Heckman said the majority of display companies have applied for government programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program and small business loans, but they’re not enough to carry the companies for ten months until the next Fourth of July.

“The entertainment industry as a whole, they’re designed to perform in front of large audiences. That will be the last segment to reopen,” Heckman said. “We’re just looking to make sure these multi-generational businesses aren’t left behind.”

Push for more assistance for outdoor entertainment

Usually, display companies put on about 16,000 Fourth of July displays for towns across the nation. This year, only a tiny fraction of that number are planned to go on.

The fireworks business is not expansive. Nationwide, there are about 150 businesses that put on fireworks displays, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association.

Heckman said that the American Pyrotechnics Association is pushing Congress for amendments or new provisions to the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, which provides low interest or forgivable loans to small businesses, to provide extra assistance for those businesses that rely on large audiences and are likely to be among the last to recover.

More backyard displays puts pressure on pets

“My real concern is what it does to my dog,” Greenfield resident Charlie Stevenson said.

Stevenson’s dog, who was rescued from Puerto Rico after she was tossed out of a pickup truck during a hurricane, is sensitive to sounds and visibly shakes when fireworks go off.

“I usually find her next to the oil tank in the basement,” Stevenson said.

Fireworks on the Fourth of July are fine with him, and he usually takes his dog somewhere quiet for a couple hours that night. The issue is when residents stretch their fireworks displays to the one or two weeks before and after the holiday, he said. Even if he received some amount of advance warning before every neighborhood display, it wouldn’t help if he wasn’t able to do something proactive for his dog.

“It’s not just my feelings, people have livestock, horses especially, they have to be taken care of in a different way because of the fireworks,” he said.

One such horse owner is fellow Greenfield resident Peter Lord.

“If you’re not there to pay attention, you might be chasing a horse down the middle of the street,” he said, especially if it had been held in temporary fencing when the fireworks start going off. Although neither of Lord’s two horses have managed to escape, he said he knows the concern to be universal among horse owners, and that many dogs take off during fireworks displays too, to be found by neighbors and strangers the next day.

Two of Lord’s five dogs are particularly traumatized by loud noises and he puts weighted jackets, called ThunderShirts, on them to calm them, he said.

Lord said he had noticed more fireworks this year than in years past. “I don’t begrudge anyone the right to fireworks, but it’s one thing to anticipate and plan for July Fourth, but these random, every night type of fireworks – you’re unprepared, and what can you do?” he said, and that he suspects that it affects the wildlife as well. Unexpected displays are a concern, “Whether you’ve got a baby or a dog or a horse,” he said.

Take caution when setting off your fireworks

Meredith Lund, fire chief for the town of New Ipswich, said there have already been five fireworks permits issued for Fourth of July celebrations in town.

With many people likely creating their own displays for the first time, Lund recommended residents take precautions to reduce fire danger. Before you light a display, ensure that if your town has a permitting process, that you follow it, and check with your local fire department about fire danger levels. The town of Temple has prohibited the display or possession of fireworks for at least 20 years, Selectman Bill Ezell said, after recently reminding residents of the ordinance.

Each year, there are thousands of reported fires associated with fireworks, starting an average of 18,500 fires each year according to the National Safety Council.

The National Safety Council advises to only use fireworks away from people, houses and flammable material, light only one devise at a time, and to soak both spent and unused fireworks in water for a few hours before discarding. While lighting fireworks, have a bucket or water source nearby to fully extinguish fireworks that don’t go off or in case of fire.


Reporter Abbe Hamilton contributed to this report.


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