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Fireworks sales exploding far ahead of July 4 holiday

Complaints over illegal fireworks skyrocket

Night after night, skies in neighborhoods across the country are alight with fireworks, despite Independence Day still more than a week away and communities canceling professional pyrotechnic shows to discourage gawking crowds amid the coronavirus pandemic.  

While big public displays won't take place, shows still will go on— in suburban backyards and urban neighborhoods from coast to coast. In fact, unauthorized celebrations have already begun in many places this month. 

Chicagoans lodged more than 7,000 complaints to local police and city officials over fireworks so far this year, compared to just 842 during the same period last year, according to the Chicago Tribune. In New York City, where commercial fireworks are illegal, residents made more than 1,200 complaints related to fireworks during the first two weeks in June, CBS New York reported. 

It's not clear where the New York revelers in particular procured the explosives. They could be homemade, say some commercial fireworks manufacturers, or they could have been purchased in another state, like Pennsylvania, where fireworks are legal and sales are booming. 

Bruce Zoldan, the CEO of Ohio-based Phantom Fireworks, which has more than 80 stores across the U.S., including in Pennsylvania, said some stores have seen sales soar up to 200% compared to this time last year. 

"I have never, ever in over 40 years of business seen sales like this — there isn't one of our stores that isn't up significantly," Zoldan told CBS MoneyWatch.

"It almost appears fireworks have become the [latest] Purell, Lysol, Clorox, and we are the next in line to be the hot-selling ticket," he said, referring to runs on personal sanitizing products at the onset of the pandemic in the U.S.

Fireworks stores "jam-packed" since May

Commercial fireworks sales usually spike as July 4 approaches, but manufacturers don't usually see an uptick in demand until a day or two before the holiday. Industry experts attribute the earlier-than-usual action to coronavirus-related factors building up since shutdowns began in mid-March. 

"I think it's directly related to the pandemic and people looking for something to do," said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. "Everyone has been in lockdown mode for the past three months with no public events happening. You can't go to the movies, more families are stuck at home, the weather is nice and they are having barbecues and it's really easy to have a backyard fireworks celebration."

With the July 4th holiday falling on a Saturday, the industry was counting on a record-setting year long before the pandemic took hold. Still, Zoldan said this spring and summer's sky-high sales have taken him by surprise. 

"As soon as our stores reopened, some in mid-May, they were jam-packed with people trying to buy fireworks," he said. "It's abnormal." 

It's not just sparklers going out the door, either. Top-selling Phantom products include what are called 500 gram repeater fireworks that create a strobe effect. They're sold in boxes and shoot off anywhere from nine to 200 repeating shots. 

Brian Williams, who manages Phantom's store in Penndel, Pennsylvania, said that last Saturday's total fireworks sales outstripped purchases made on a typical July 3, usually his busiest day of the year. His customers hail from New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania in roughly equal numbers, he said. 

APA president Mike Collar, also the president and COO of Missouri-based Winco, with warehouses across the country, said social-distancing-minded customers may be shopping early for Independence Day to avoid the crowds that assemble in stores closer to July 4. 

How do they get into New York City?

New Yorkers sometimes travel to purchase fireworks in nearby states, including Pennsylvania or New Hampshire, but many customers are local, according to Collar. Some of the louder fireworks that people across the country are complaining about could be of the illegal, homemade variety, Collar suggested.

Zoldan said the kind of fireworks he sees going off in New York in videos "are likely made in clandestine places like somebody's barn or basement. Truly they are illegal explosives, not legal fireworks."

Of course it's possible, too, that they were purchased legally in bulk out-of-state and then resold illegally to residents in New York who set them off nightly and alarm their neighbors. 

"My baby takes longer naps during the day because he does not get enough sleep during the night and he wakes up crying," one New York City father told CBS This Morning. Another city resident remarked that some of the shots sound like explosions, while others sound like bombs. 

Either way, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio vows to crack down on the nightly celebrations that residents say are keeping them up at night. He has launched a task force to target illegal fireworks. Tactics will include undercover purchases and sting operations aimed at "finding where the supply is and cutting it off at the knees."

While the pandemic appears to be benefitting the commercial fireworks industry, its professional display counterpart is "on life support" and won't be revived until at least next year, according to Heckman of the APA. 

About 80% of the roughly 16,000 Independence Day fireworks displays that typically take place are cancelled because they would congregate groups that violate state laws to social distance during the pandemic. 

"We almost feel guilty on our end," said Collar. "They'll have to wait until the next Fourth of July. It's going to be a long winter for those guys."

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