Imagine this scenario.It’s a warm and muggy June evening, roughly 11 p.m. It’s been a long day of work and child care, which has been particularly stressful over the last three months thanks to COVID-19. You and your partner just let the dogs out one last time, checked in on the kids (they’ve been in bed since 9) and locked up the house. You brush your teeth and climb into bed. You hope you can fall asleep soon – your 6 a.m. alarm always comes fast. You turn the lights off, lay your head down on the pillow and close your eyes. Just as you start to drift off - BOOM! - an explosion!
Your dogs begin barking and howling incessantly and your children come crying at your bedroom door. You’re not concerned that it might be gunshots or a leaking gas line that exploded. You don’t feel compelled to call the police or even look outside. No, you’re a resident of the Lehigh Valley and you know the noise is simply neighbors setting off fireworks as they’ve done every night since seemingly Easter. All you can do is sigh, shake your head and do your best to comfort your family, assuring them that even though it’s a jarringly-loud, sleep-interrupting nuisance, it’s nothing to be afraid of.
Although several fireworks stores such as Phantom, Sky King and TNT have been in operation at the Easton exit off Interstate 78 for over a decade, it was only in October 2017 Pennsylvania state legislators overwhelmingly legalized the sale and possession of “consumer grade” fireworks. In fact, at the time, all local state representatives voted in favor of the measure, which added a 12 percent sales tax to each purchase and was expected at the time to generate approximately $9 million in revenue, according to a December 2017 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Until then, only customers who possessed an out-of-state identification card were legally allowed to not just make purchases, but even enter the stores’ premises (hence their proximity to the PA-NJ border).
Although there have been noticeable upticks in fireworks’ prevalence in residential neighborhoods in the Lehigh Valley over the past two years, 2020 has proved to be something of a “tipping point” in regard to both their omnipresence as well as attention from the national media. In a CNN article from June 23, VP and General Counsel at Phantom Fireworks, Bill Weimer said more people are buying fireworks from Phantom and they’re buying them earlier than ever. “It’s a combination of people getting out, being anxious and having this pent-up energy, and then right around the corner is a quintessential firework holiday,” he said. “Put the two together, consider the fact there won’t be a lot of [public fireworks displays due to COVID-19], and suddenly, you have a formula that means people are buying more and more fireworks.”
“We have definitely maybe doubled, tripled our sales this year,” Phantom Manager Matthew Metzgar said at the store, which sits right off Interstate 78, just a few minutes away from two other fireworks stores.” The store reopened June 5 after nearly three months’ closure due to COVID-19.
Despite the good news for local stores (and the seemingly dozens of pop-up tents selling novelty wares such as sparklers, “poppers” and other items), not everybody is excited for what might be proving to be a historic year for firework consumption. A WFMZ article about the June 17 Allentown City Council meeting referred to Allentown as a “city under siege” from fireworks. According to the article, “‘It is incumbent on the city to attempt to address the issues being caused by the indiscriminate use of fireworks,’ the West Park Civic Association Board wrote in a letter to council.”
Council members needed little persuasion on the matter. Some offered their own accounts of fireworks activities. WFMZ reported the council “will request that state lawmakers consider repealing the fireworks law.”
While fireworks are available for legal purchase by Pennsylvania residents, there are regulations and laws that limit where they can be used. Those who are caught violating existing use laws do face citations but catching people using legally purchased fireworks illegally can prove to be a taxing and challenging nightly occurrence for law enforcement.
State Rep. Jeanne McNeill, D-133rd, which covers portions of South Bethlehem, Salisbury and Fountain Hill, among other parts of the area, released a statement June 24. McNeill’s late husband, Rep. Daniel McNeill, was one of the overwhelming number of legislators who voted to legalize sales to PA residents in 2017. The statement read, in part:
“This year, it seems as if the annual tradition in communities here in Lehigh County and across the commonwealth has reached a heightened level of activity. Perhaps one might say people are especially keen on releasing extra stress brought out by the COVID-19 pandemic and the quarantine that halted get-togethers. Regardless of reasoning, the displays are unauthorized and, as noted by the calls and conversations, many residents tend to feel these nighttime displays are adding to, not alleviating stress: upsetting pets, depriving many from sleep, negatively impacting our veterans with PTSD, and, in our cities, posing a safety issue.
“Our frontline workers, specifically those who are called upon to protect and serve, from our police departments to fire companies, have already seen an increase in demand for their services as our communities continue to come back to life amid a global pandemic. As such, the added burden placed by the uptick in pyrotechnics across our communities is not making their jobs any easier, or our streets any safer.
“The fireworks are likely to continue, so too are efforts and conversations to find a balanced solution to address safety concerns that ensure our celebrations are mindful of the collective whole. Rest assured, I am working with my colleagues in Harrisburg to address this issue so that a fair and balanced solution can be found. There is no reason why our communities should feel like, as one person called it, ‘a war zone.’”
Despite all this, it seems highly unlikely anything will fundamentally change regarding fireworks’ rampancy for the rest of the summer, even as local police departments attempt to crack down on them. Whether or not legislation is coming in the future to reverse the legalization will likely depend on further public outcry. In the meantime, plenty of residents’ bedtime routines will surely involve closing their windows, turning their sound machines on full-blast and wishing upon a firecracker they can get a decent night’s sleep.
Salisbury Township Police Department Chief Kevin J. Soberick acknowledged in a brief phone interview July 1 social media sites are active in providing a forum for fireworks concerns in the township; however, police calls about fireworks are at about average. Calls did start a bit earlier than usual, Soberick said. The Fourth of July holiday falling on a weekend may have contributed to the early start, Soberick said.
Conditions vary in neighboring municipalities.
“Yes, ever since the change in the fireworks statute we have experienced an increase in fireworks complaints,” Emmaus Police Department Chief Charles Palmer wrote in an email to The Press July 1.
“It seems that fireworks are not just for the Fourth of July anymore, but more a year-round way to celebrate any major holiday like Christmas and the new year.
“Unfortunately it has also become a way to celebrate everything from Taco Tuesday, Hump Day Wednesday, Throwback Thursday and just any old Friday to start the weekend,” Palmer added.