Coronavirus-prompted July 4th cancellations leave fireworks display companies 'on life support'

'We have a tale of two cities, if you will, within our industry'

Individual fireworks sales have reached record highs as the stir-crazy seek new avenues of excitement after months of staying indoors amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. But fireworks display companies – those businesses hired for large gatherings, most typically the July Fourth holiday – are facing a much different reality.

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“We have a tale of two cities, if you will, within our industry,” said Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, when reached by phone Wednesday.

Consumer fireworks retail sales, most often associated with the backyard fireworks and sparklers one might see during the holiday, are at an “all-time high,” according to an APA press release from June 22, which attributes the high sales numbers to the widespread cancellation of regularly scheduled Independence Day events.

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“Some consumer companies are reporting that their sales are double or triple what they were,” Heckman told FOX Business. “In comparison to last year at the exact same time, and we're just now hitting the peak sales period: July 1 through 4.”

But on the other side of the coin, Heckman said, companies within the fireworks display industry are “on life support right now.”

"They are struggling for survivability due to the widespread cancelations of community Independence Day celebrations nationwide,” she said. “Typically, there are 16,000 Independence Day fireworks shows across the country. And we're looking at probably about 5 percent of those occurring. So, we have some companies that are down 90 percent in their revenue.”

The APA represents about 150 fireworks display companies, most of which are small family businesses.

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“Eighty percent of their revenue is derived from the Fourth of July alone,” Heckman said, “and they don’t get a do-over.”

Now, the APA is asking Congress to modify the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program to help those in the fireworks display industry survive.

"Where we are now is trying to engage members of Congress to pay attention and not leave this industry behind,” she said. “With so many industries being impacted by COVID and needing assistance, no one thinks about professional firework display industry except one day a year: the Fourth of July.”

The APA released a YouTube video Monday with the title, “Fireworks are Cancelled! Help Save the 4th of July – Help Save the Fireworks Display Industry!”

Steve Pelkey, CEO of Atlas PyroVision Entertainment in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, said his business usually brings in approximately $3.5 million in revenue over the holiday.

This year, they’re hoping to bring in $350,000, Pelkey, who was featured in the APA video, told FOX Business on Wednesday.

“With all of mass gatherings being completely shut out, of course, so is our industry,” Pelkey said. “Our entire industry brings in 100 percent of their pyrotechnic material to display throughout the course of the summer. And in particular, those three to four weeks around the Fourth of July, with all of which perhaps as much as 70 percent of our annual income is being conducted during that time. And now all of these companies are sitting on the maximum level of pyrotechnics.”

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The stockpile of unused fireworks creates a new, expensive problem, he explained.

“[We] have strict compliance with the [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives]. It has to be secure, inspected on at least every 48 hours,” he said. "We have to have it fully insured for liability at the highest possible levels of liability insurance throughout the next year without an income.”

Government regulations require that Pelkey’s employees who work with the fireworks be specially trained and certified with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"It's not like the restaurant industry or the hotel industry where they just don't have staff that comes," he said. "We had to bring in all this inventory and now we're sitting on all this inventory, and it's not like we can just go home … We have to worry about it every single day for the next eight, 10, 12 months without an income.”

Atlas PyroVision serves the greater New England area and has storage facilities in four of the six New England states. His company, a third-generation family business, employs 25 people, including four of his six daughters and his wife.

“And the rest of them are like family,” Pelkey said. “They’re longtime employees. [On] average, been with us for 15, 20 years.”

Pelkey’s company was granted stimulus funds through the SBA’s Payroll Protection Program. But, with only eight weeks of aid, Atlas, much like the other fireworks display companies, is struggling to stay afloat.

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“We’re having to take salary decreases wherever and to cut benefits. We're having to reduce hours, we're having to do a whole variety of measures just so we can get to 2021,” he continued. “Eight weeks of PPP, although we're extremely grateful, but what do you do with the other 44 weeks without an income?”