The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Where are the fireworks? Pandemic shortages stifle July Fourth displays.

Industry snuffed by the coronavirus struggles as pre-pandemic demand returns

Vincent DiGiorgio, owner of Digital Lightning, center, and co-owner/wife Alysha DiGiorgio, right, with help from their crew, unload a truck on June 29 in Middleburg, Va., as they prepare to set up fireworks equipment. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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Alysha DiGiorgio knows it’s not a Fourth of July celebration without fireworks. But that’s the reality her clients face if a shipment delayed since April doesn’t arrive from the Port of New York and New Jersey by Saturday.

DiGiorgio, the vice president of Digital Lightning, a Maryland fireworks display company, tried hard to avoid this. When port staffing issues in China delayed her shipment, she called other fireworks companies to buy any extra stock — they had none.

She estimates that three-quarters of the rockets, roman candles and camaros she will need for a busy Independence Day schedule of shows from Solomons, Md., to Herndon, Va., are still stuck in shipping containers that might reach her vendor only days before the events.

“We’ve never been in this situation before,” DiGiorgio said.

Demand for fireworks displays surged past pre-pandemic levels this year as cities and counties push to finally return to normal after two years of Independence Day celebrations stifled by the coronavirus. Stymied by supply chain issues, those celebrations are in jeopardy as fireworks display businesses still hurting from the downturn cannot secure enough product or staff to meet demand.

In Maryland and Virginia, shortages in fireworks and the pyrotechnicians trained to fire them have led to cancellations of shows, including in College Park, and rescheduling of events in Montgomery County, Fairfax City, Vienna and Ocean City to before or after July Fourth. Many shows still scheduled to happen hinge on rebookings, last-minute deliveries and a bit of luck.

“It was rather shocking,” said Fairfax Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Salgado, whose contracted fireworks company canceled about 25 shows in the region. “I’ve been doing firework shows for 25 years. [This] has never happened.”

For a spectacle that ends in a couple of seconds and a flash, each rocket in a fireworks show usually needs months of preparation to arrive on time. Planning is essential when most fireworks are shipped from China, and almost all of the fireworks display industry’s business is courtesy of just one day of the year.

The entire fireworks display industry fell silent in 2020 as the coronavirus shuttered most public celebrations, pausing the seasonal hiring of pyrotechnicians and orders. Annual revenue for the industry cratered from an average of more than $300 million in the past decade to $93 million in 2020, according to the American Pyrotechnics Association. The shortfall hit smaller companies the hardest.

“Companies lost 90, 95 percent of their revenue,” said Julie Heckman, executive director of the APA. “They had no business.”

Independence Day celebrations last year inched back to about 60 percent of pre-pandemic demand, low enough that companies got by on leftover stock, Heckman said. But with most of their crews furloughed and no new orders in the pipeline, most companies were far from prepared for a normal year’s business.

“And now, it’s come back gangbusters,” Heckman said.

Getting back up to speed hasn’t been easy. Most pyrotechnicians in the United States are hired seasonally and must have a commercial driver’s license, a hazmat endorsement to transport explosives and a background check, among other things — qualifications that have long since lapsed for those furloughed at the start of the pandemic.

Timothy Jameson, owner of Maryland fireworks display company Innovative Pyrotechnic Concepts, is one of the lucky few with enough fireworks stocked up for the holiday. He took out a loan to bulk-order fireworks in 2020, fearing further disruptions to supply chains.

But fronting the cost of fireworks two years ahead isn’t feasible for most companies, which are either too big to order enough to meet clients’ demands amid the shortage or too small to absorb higher prices on tight margins. Shipping costs surged during the pandemic, as well, Heckman said. DiGiorgio said her charges for shipping from China increased by 500 percent.

With Chinese factories and American purchasers a year out of sync — production was scaled down during the pandemic as demand from the United States dropped — Jameson said delays will continue.

“Companies are realizing that if they don’t start ordering 18 months ahead — which means they’re already late ordering for 2023 — they’re going to keep facing this problem,” he said.

Jameson said his company scrambled to help cities with makeup shows after their original fireworks display companies canceled on them until he ran out of crews to staff the events. Many event organizers turning to backup companies had to move celebrations to days surrounding the holiday. Lily Widman, special event coordinator for the city of Vienna, called nearly every number on a local list of fireworks vendors before settling for a makeup date of Friday.

“We’ve had a few people who were disappointed,” Widman said. “But for the most part, a lot of people said, ‘Oh, this is even better. We can get a full weekend of celebrating.’ ”

Salvaging a few shows won’t be enough, though, to defray the rising costs for firework display companies. Many smaller ones didn’t survive 2020, and even bigger players like Jameson are wary of expanding amid persistent challenges.

“I don’t want to be that company,” Jameson said. “I’m satisfied with our 200 shows in this region, and it’s all I want to do, believe me.”

DiGiorgio, who normally does only six July Fourth shows a year, is reconsidering her company’s future for the first time — “we’re basically losing money to make this year happen,” she said. If costs continue to rise, Digital Lightning is considering dropping out of the fireworks business and focusing on the company’s other services providing event lighting.

“I hope that’s not the case,” DiGiorgio said. “Because we really like doing fireworks. We love just seeing the excitement of the crowd cheering at the end of the show.”

DiGiorgio and a dwindling crew of technicians were in Middleburg on Wednesday, setting up the racks from which they will launch fireworks above Salamander Resort on the Fourth of July. It’s yet another change to her schedule due to staffing shortages — normally, they don’t set up this far in advance, and they will have to cover the equipment up until show crews arrive.

Early Saturday morning, just two days before her displays need to be set up and primed, DiGiorgio will make the five-hour drive up to her company’s vendor in Pennsylvania. Hopefully, her fireworks will be waiting for her.

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