St. Petersburg’s waterfront fireworks display and Tampa’s annual Boom by the Bay officially bit the dust last week amid concerns about crowds and the coronavirus. From Safety Harbor to Siesta Key, fetes for the Fourth are finished, for now.
“We’ll take a break from that this year,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman tweeted last week. “Public health and safety is the priority.”
But could fireworks be big in Tampa Bay anyway?
Consider this: Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law this year that makes setting off fireworks officially legal on Independence Day. (And on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, too.)
Also, restless residents may be ready for something that feels normal in a world that for months has not.
And this year, the Fourth falls on a Saturday, when people who don’t have to work the next day often celebrate with extra enthusiasm.
Will all that add up to more amateur fireworks lighting up neighborhoods?
And if so, what’s the best way to survive it?
“This year it’s like everything’s pointing to just a booming year,” said Jeff Siddle, manager and president of Pyro Junkie Fireworks in Tampa. “It’s going to be a good year for us.”
Compared to this time last year, they’ve already seen a big boost in people perusing aisles stacked with aerial repeaters, roman candles, artillery shells and fireworks with names like Ninja Punch, Agent Orange and Drunken Monkey.
“Everybody’s just ready to do something,” Siddle said.
For nearly 80 years in Florida, real fireworks ― the kind that explode or shoot up into the air — were illegal. Then came a loophole that said they could be used for agricultural purposes like scaring birds away from crops. So customers buying fireworks would sign forms that said that’s what they wanted them for. No, really.
“It was like the running joke,” Siddle said. “‘We’re here to scare some birds away.‘”
Now fireworks are legal on those three holidays. The new law has some complications, like it isn’t intended to supersede local regulations on fireworks, and people seem to still be figuring out the details.
But in the time of the coronavirus, the new rules have raised concerns about the potential for large neighborhood celebrations that could increase the spread of COVID-19.
There also are concerns about more amateurs trying out fireworks, something that already keeps emergency rooms busy. And they have caused horrific scenarios like the 2018 death of 16-year-old Joseph King of Tampa, who was trying to launch a mortar-style firework when it exploded in his hand.
“Now that people don’t have to fill out the form that says ‘I’m going to use it to to scare away birds,’ I would expect to see more sales,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
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“It’s a concern, there’s no doubt,” said Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan, who noted that fireworks were part of one of the early protests in Tampa. “You worry about the injury to others. Are they doing it safely?”
“I’m extremely worried about the safety of it,” said Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister.
So for those who choose to partake, here are some tips from the experts:
- Light only one at a time.
- Keep a bucket of water, a garden hose or a fire extinguisher nearby.
- If a device does not ignite ― if it’s a dud — don’t stand over it to investigate. And do not try to relight it.
- Don’t drink alcohol or wear loose clothing if you’re lighting fireworks.
- Keep spectators a healthy distance away.
- From Siddle at Pyro Junkie: Customers should not be shy about asking questions. “Ask the sales staff if you don’t know what something does,” he said. Safety is particularly important this year “especially since there might be a big boost in people not familiar with it.”
And if you do plan to buy, buy early. Stores and roadside tents get especially crowded on July 3 and 4, and crowds are to be avoided.
Gualtieri supported and encouraged cancelling official annual fireworks displays this year because of the coronavirus. He says he’s somewhat concerned about the Fourth, but hoping people will be reasonable.
A block party of 75 people “is probably not a good idea,” he said.
“What I hope people don’t do is substitute their own individual mass gatherings in their neighborhoods or parks,” he said, “and do what we’re trying to avoid.”
“Listen, have your barbecues, have your gatherings,” said Chronister. But “safety has to be paramount.”
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