Coming together, apart

Holiday fireworks shows changed for COVID-19 safety

Fireworks Payton

Terry Payton of Fireworks King in Oxford stocks his shelves in preparation for a big Independence Day celebration in spite of the COVID-19 scare.

Independence Day is more than a week off, but Terry Payton, co-owner of Firework Kings in Oxford, said local folks are ready to get out and light up the sky. 

Payton’s shop, which he owns with his father-in-law and a friend, has been in business for about six years, he said. It opened for the season about a week ago at a new location on Alabama 21 near the Walmart; the days leading up to the grand opening were full of phone calls, Payton said, from people eager to visit the store. Business seldom booms 10 days ahead of the holiday, but shoppers have been excited, he said, already visiting to purchase pyrotechnics of various shapes, sizes and colors. 

Talking by phone Wednesday, Payton said he had no doubt that the cramped cabin fever of the COVID-19 pandemic helped create the urge for incendiary aesthetics — people want to get out, and they’re longing for togetherness which can be easier to find around the holiday.

“There’s a spirit that takes place on the Fourth, and I think that spirit is just waiting to come out this year; it’s been cooped up and withheld,” Payton said. “I think the timing is good for the Fourth, considering all the things going on in the world.”

Staple municipal celebrations are planned, as well. Oxford announced a few weeks ago that it would proceed with its annual Freedom Festival at Oxford Lake Park on July 4, and Jax Fest will be held at the Jacksonville High School football stadium on July 3. 

But no holiday event has escaped the pandemic unscathed; Heflin city leaders said earlier this month that fireworks were unlikely to happen at all, and both of Calhoun County’s events were adjusted to fit COVID safety standards. 

The Freedom Festival — typically a day-long event capped by a fireworks show after nightfall — will now be a daytime festival from 8 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. It’s expected to feature a parade, a petting zoo and carnival games among other activities, but the evening fireworks have been cancelled, due at least in part to their popularity. Most years, crowds as large as 20,000 arrive at the park from all around Calhoun County to watch the show, said Oxford fire Chief Gary Sparks — a crowd far too large and packed to follow the state’s social distancing rules. 

“We received a letter from the state fire marshal’s office stating that our fireworks permit is conditional on us following the governor’s social distancing orders for large events,” Sparks said Wednesday evening. “With that number of people there and as big as the crowd can get, there would be no way we could keep social distancing in effect.” 

As of that morning, the number of new daily coronavirus cases in Alabama climbed to the highest 14-day average the state had ever seen, underlining the importance of adhering to those rules. 

Freedom Fest’s daytime activities aren’t held to the same stipulations, Sparks said, but the crowds are smaller and more manageable, and the city still advises families to maintain 6 feet of space from other families. 

The fireworks display company had already been paid for the event, which had been scheduled far in advance, Sparks said. City leaders are talking now about rescheduling the show for later in the year, though a specific date has yet to be chosen. 

Jax Fest, meanwhile, still has fireworks on its evening agenda, along with musicians every hour from 6 p.m. until the display begins at 9 p.m. Other staple features — the kids’ zone, bounce houses and other close-quarters activities — have been dropped for safety’s sake. 

“With the fireworks, families usually sit with families and in their vehicles,” said Jacksonville fire Chief Keith Kadle. 

Like Payton, the fireworks shop owner, Kadle expected excitement and energy out of his city’s residents. He said he wanted them to know that fireworks are best left to the professionals, and to leave their own ordnance at home. With all the attention paidto the virus, starting a fire — unintentionally, on the ground — would suit no one. 

The event, Kadle said, feels even more necessary this year. 

“It gives people a little chance to get out of the house and maybe a little taste of normalcy, at least for a little while,” he said. “Our country needs to come together right now; if this can be a small part of that, wouldn’t that be wonderful?”