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Big fireworks shows are canceled, but the sales are booming as Iowans make their own plans

Damion Cornwell, from left, Diana and Natasha Johnson of Cedar Rapids shop fore fireworks together at the Iowa Fireworks
Damion Cornwell, from left, Diana and Natasha Johnson of Cedar Rapids shop fore fireworks together at the Iowa Fireworks tent on Bowling Street SW in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, June 16, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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With the coronavirus pandemic snuffing out many municipal fireworks displays this Fourth of July, some vendors of consumer fireworks say they’re seeing a boost in sales.

Bobby Sero, who has been setting up a tent at 4401 Bowling St. in Cedar Rapids every summer for the past three years for Iowa Fireworks Company, said his opening weekend sales quadrupled compared with last year.

Opening day fell on a weekday last year, and he said he brought in about $1,800 after the first weekend day. On June 13, the first day vendors could open this year under state code, Sero, along with his brother-in-law and the two families sold roughly $5,400 worth of fireworks.

He attributes that both to a growing number of returning customers and people looking for ways to celebrate the Fourth outside of now-canceled fireworks displays.

In Marion, Paul Myers checked his first weekend totals for Boom Boom Billy’s at 901 50th St. He said the business saw a jump of about $1,000 from last year, which he said could be due to people feeling cooped up due to COVID-19 closures or better marketing. Myers is inviting food trucks — O’s Grill offered Greek fare for the opening weekend — to stake out near his tent on the weekends for the first time.

“We were pleasantly surprised,” Myers said of seeing a bump in sales. “But we anticipated it. We made sure to have more stock on hand this year.”

Iowa legalized the sale, possession and use of fireworks in 2017 in a limited fashion, allowing Iowans access to fireworks other than sparklers, caps and snakes for the first time in nearly 80 years.

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Many Iowa cities, however, enacted more stringent restrictions and do not allow people to set off consumer fireworks in their jurisdictions.

Besides posing safety concerns, the fireworks can frighten pets, exacerbate post-traumatic stress disorder — and be just plain annoying.

Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Coralville, for instance, all ban the use of fireworks year-round. Hiawatha and Marion allow consumer fireworks only from noon to 11 p.m. on the Fourth.

“Even though a fireworks is a small explosive, it’s still an explosive and it can cause damage,” Marion Fire Marshal Wade Markley said. “We just want everyone to have a happy Fourth of July without any injuries or property loss.”

In Cedar Rapids, people discharging fireworks within the city limits can face fines of up to $625. Last summer, the city reported three fireworks-related injuries and two fire incidents. In Iowa City, illegal fireworks users can face a minimum $250 fine.

Myers, a licensed pyrotechnician, usually helps operate Cedar Rapids’ Freedom Fest, which organizers called off this year to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

He said his staff, which are also licensed in pyrotechnicians, are happy to set up trainings with customers and teach typical safety precautions that he employs when setting up a professional display.

Sero, too, handed out information sheets and training packets at his Cedar Rapids location.

For professional fireworks shows, Cedar Rapids Fire Marshal Vance Mckinnon said pyrotechnicians keep the public a distance away based on a firework’s launch height, measured in inches per shell. Pyrotechnicians must set up 70 feet away from people and buildings for every inch of shell.

Fireworks at Cedar Rapids’ Freedom Fest typically are 3-inch shells, Mckinnon said. Consumer-grade fireworks range from low-risk novelty items like sparklers that can be sold year-round to explosives that leave the ground, like bottle rockets or mine and shell devices.

Mckinnon said that while consumer-grade fireworks don’t need a license, those setting them off should follow directions and take safety precautions to avoid injury.

Several Eastern Iowa fireworks celebrations were canceled this year including Cedar Rapids Freedom Fest and Iowa City’s annual fireworks show that caps the Jazz Festival, which both draw thousands of people. However, Coralville plans to host a drive-in fireworks show at dusk July 4 with a location to be announced, and the Cedar Rapids Kernels plan to host a Fourth of July bash with reserved-tickets only.

While some vendors report increased sales, there are fewer vendors across Iowa. The State Fire Marshal’s Office authorized 621 sites in 2019 but as of Thursday had issued licenses for only 536 sites. The vendor application is open, though, until the end of the selling period July 8.

The Iowa Fireworks Company, which Sero works for, typically has more than 40 locations across the state. But this year only 29 were licensed and set up, according to a list of vendors on the Iowa Fire Marshal’s website.

For Sero, who is a behavioral-focused para educator for Franklin Middle School in Cedar Rapids, selling fireworks is a family affair. His brother-in-law and the two families’ kids all help out for the summer while school is out of session.

“With being off school for so long this year due to COVID-19, we were itching to get out and about and do something,” Sero said.

Comments: (319) 398-8370; sarah.watson@thegazette.com

Where can I set off fireworks in the Corridor?

Allowed

Sparklers, snakes or snaps are legal anytime.

• Marion allows consumer fireworks only from noon to 11 p.m. on the Fourth

• Hiawatha only allows fireworks noon to 11 p.m. July 4.

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• Unincorporated Linn County allows fireworks from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. July 5, But they may be used only on property owned by the person using them, or with the property owner’s permission.

Not allowed

You can’t legally set off fireworks at any time in these places:

• Cedar Rapids

• Iowa City

• Coralville

• Unincorporated Johnson County

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