Illegal fireworks are a regular part of summer nights in most cities, but residents are complaining that this year, the fireworks appear to be louder, more frequent and going on longer than before, waking up neighbors into the early hours of the morning.
Now, cities are cracking down.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is the latest to weigh in on the surge in illicit activity, announcing on Tuesday a multiagency task force to stem the flow of illegal fireworks into the streets of all five boroughs, after record numbers of complaints about the crackles and booms keeping residents up at all hours of the night.
They carry names such as “Avengeance - Widow Maker,” "PoPo Magnet” and “Enduring Freedom” — but these pyrotechnics could put some unauthorized sellers in jail.
“We are going to start a huge sting operation," with undercover buys and arrests, de Blasio said at a press conference Tuesday. "We intend to go to the root cause. That is, the people who are supplying the fireworks, the folks who are profiting off illegal fireworks."
Complaints about the nightly nuisance have erupted in cities across the Northeast. Boston has reported a more than 2,000 percent increase in fireworks-related noise complaints, and city police announced they seized stockpiles.
Last week, Baltimore launched an investigation into the increased use of fireworks, while Salem, Massachusetts, has started patrolling for illicit pyrotechnics.
Brooklyn residents said street corners and intersections are littered with colorful, spent cardboard packages, along with the trademark red wrappers from firecrackers — all illegal for sale, transport or use in New York City.
According to the city, residents lodged more than 1,700 fireworks complaints in the first half of June, compared to just 21 during the same time last year.
“We are going crazy” from “bombings” that last until “4 a.m.,” with children and pets woken up and disturbed, Brooklyn residents wrote on one neighborhood forum. “Times are tough enough already.”
For years, major fireworks stores have set up shop right next to urban areas where fireworks are illegal. Outside Boston, stores selling consumer-grade pyrotechnics are clustered just over the border with New Hampshire. Across the Delaware River from New Jersey, a state in which large fireworks are illegal, and also north of Maryland, which restricts fireworks use to smaller items such as sparklers and spinners, fireworks stores line the borders with Pennsylvania, where all consumer fireworks are legal, including aerials, roman candles, rockets and high-flying missiles.
The owners of fireworks retail chains say the locations are chosen based on local zoning laws and list a number of possible explanations for the sudden uptick.
“People are starved for entertainment. There’s no concerts, no theme parks, no casinos,” said Joe Van, managing partner of Florida-based Sky King Fireworks, which has locations in Florida, Indiana and Pennsylvania. “People are resorting to coming up with their own entertainment.”
While many people are feeling cooped up after months of coronavirus lockdowns and need to let off steam, there could also be a surge of patriotism at play, as states begin to reopen. An increase in family togetherness after so much time spent in quarantine could also be a factor, store owners say.
An overly successful promotion?
Another reason for the surge may be a marketing misfire by fireworks sellers themselves.
Expecting a 20 to 50 percent drop in sales due to the lockdowns, sellers in March planned one of their most ambitious discount programs of all time, launching a “buy 1, get 2 free” industrywide special offer.
Previously reserved mainly for narrow promotional windows or returning customers, the sale was instead extended from the Memorial Day runup through this past weekend, across their entire inventories, sellers say.
Instead of only advertising the promotion to previous customers, they took out billboards, radio ads and targeted online ads, in addition to their catalogs and direct mailers, hoping to capture business and keep their stores in the black amid the nationwide lockdowns.
Rather than seeing their business cut in half, stores have seen sales soaring more than 200 percent in some locations.
“Everyone was doing it,” said William Weimer, vice president of the retailer Phantom Fireworks, which reported a 15 percent increase in sales nationally.
When sales first started to tick up, fireworks sellers thought they were a "blip." But shopping carts, pickup truck beds and vans kept filling up, and lines outside stores grew. There was no way to roll back the promotion, since the marketing material had already been paid for and the stores needed to live up to their promise.
"Once the cat is out of the bag, the cat is out of the bag," Van, whose stores participated in the promotion, said.
While the program has come to its planned conclusion at some stores, the industry has already been able to net record sales.
"If trends continue, a year we thought might have no season at all, could conceivably have a banner year," Weimer said.
There are also indications that some users are making homebrew fireworks, combining consumer-grade fireworks with pyrotechnic material from more powerful display fireworks they’ve been able to acquire, law enforcement sources said.
That can lead to dangerous, or even fatal consequences, experts warn.