People & Places

Fourth of July parades and fireworks reimagined for 2020

With many town shows canceled, Northstar Fireworks retail stores in East Montpelier and St. Johnsbury have seen a spike in customers. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

As the Fourth of July approaches, Vermont cities and towns are deciding how to adjust their celebrations to be safe and socially distant amid the Covid-19 pandemic — and in many cases, canceling them outright.

Earlier this month, the Agency of Commerce and Community Development released guidance for Fourth of July fireworks. According to the agency, when the events are held as drive-ins, where social distancing can be followed, the gatherings are allowed.

However, many towns are erring on the side of caution and canceling their events entirely.

Some of the state’s biggest shows, like the fireworks in Burlington and Montpelier, and well-known smaller gatherings like the Warren parade, have been rescheduled to next year.

“With continued uncertainty surrounding the status of the virus in adjoining states, coupled with the inevitable crowds in the village, cancellation was the prudent decision,” organizers wrote in a message about the cancellation of Warren’s iconic Independence Day parade.

It will be the first time in 72 years that the parade has been canceled. At a meeting of the Warren Selectboard, several alternatives were floated, like trying to limit the parade to locals, but it was quickly decided that keeping people out of downtown Warren would be entirely unfeasible. 

This year’s theme was set to be “United We Stand,” but the Valley Reporter joked that a more apt theme would be “United We Stand — 6 Feet Apart.” 

Andy Cunningham, chair of the Warren selectboard, said it was clear almost immediately in March that this would likely have to happen, and by May, the decision became official. 

“It’ll be a big hole for the community,” Cunningham said. “When people think back on this year, they’ll think of the year without the Fourth of July parade.” 

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From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, Mad River Valley Television will host a marathon of Warren parade telecasts dating back to 2002.

In Montpelier, the fireworks show, which draws more than 15,000 people to the Statehouse lawn on July 3, has been rescheduled to 2021.

Fourth of July
Fireworks seen from the Statehouse during Montpelier’s Independence Day celebration on Wednesday, July 3, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

“This was a heartbreaking decision to make,” said Dan Groberg, executive director of Montpelier Alive, which organizes Montpelier’s annual celebration. “This was not a decision we made lightly, but one that we needed to make to protect the health and safety of our neighbors.”

Montpelier is planning to redirect some of the resources allocated to the Independence Day event into the fall, possibly to expand its Moonlight Madness celebration in October into a weekend-long event.

The largest fireworks show in the state, in Burlington, is also on hold until 2021. The city said this is due to the state’s mass gathering limits, which are currently capped at 50 people.

“It’s a very different year,” said Tom Swenson, the general manager of Northstar Fireworks in East Montpelier. 

In a typical year, Northstar would contract with about 100 municipalities across New England — including Burlington and Montpelier — to put on fireworks shows during the holiday week. This year, they’ve done about a dozen. “It’s huge lost revenue,” Swenson said.

Tom Swenson
Tom Swenson is the general manager of Northstar Fireworks in East Montpelier. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

With town shows canceled, Northstar’s retail stores in East Montpelier and St. Johnsbury have seen an increase in foot traffic. But due to capacity restrictions, they can only allow a handful of customers in the store at a time. Both stores are regularly seeing lines out the door.

Customers are buying fewer of what Swenson calls “novelty items,” like firecrackers and bottle rockets, in favor of stronger firepower. “We’re having a lot of people come in and say, ‘I want the stuff that makes a nice little show,'” he said. 

Swenson estimates Northstar’s retail sales are up about 35% over a typical year. But he’s also concerned that the influx of first-time buyers aren’t keeping safety in mind. He’s encouraging customers to read the guidelines on Northstar’s website, check with their local governments to apply for any necessary permits, and let their neighbors know they’ll be shooting fireworks.

He added that professional shows typically end by 10 p.m., and individual shooters should do the same. “Nobody loves watching fireworks at 3 a.m.,” he said. “When I hear fireworks going off at 3 a.m., I probably sold it to them, and it ticks me off.”

Some towns will still be hosting shows, but have found ways to rework their productions to be socially distant.

In Newport, fireworks will be set off over Lake Memphremagog, though officials are asking residents to enjoy the show from either their boat or car, rather than gathering outside as people might typically do. Killington Resort and Sugarbush Resort are also doing drive-in shows, where attendants will keep 10 feet between each car, and ensure that viewers stay either in their car or in a car an arm’s length away.

Similarly, Milton hopes to launch fireworks off Georgia Mountain, where town officials expect most residents could watch from their own backyards, with additional parking areas set up for those who can’t see the show from their house.

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And some are getting even more creative. In Fairfax, officials plan to host a “reverse parade” — where instead of spectators lining Main Street to watch the parade, the properties on Main Street will be filled with decorations and “floats,” so residents can drive down the road and see the festivities from their cars.

But one theme holds constant across the state — everyone is planning on getting their Fourth of July festivities back on track for 2021.

Mike Dougherty contributed reporting.

Ellie French

About Ellie

Ellie French is a general assignment reporter and news assistant for VTDigger. She is a recent graduate of Boston University, where she interned for the Boston Business Journal and served as the editor-in-chief of The Daily Free Press, BU’s student newspaper. She is originally from Duluth, Minnesota.

Email: [email protected]

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