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The Fourth of July in the Shadow of a Pandemic

May 12, 2020  by  Laura Crandall
Category:  Administration and Management COVID-19

The Fourth of July in the Shadow of a Pandemic

Many public Fourth of July fireworks displays have been cancelled due to COVID-19 but some cities and towns are still wrestling with a decision to go ahead, scale back, cancel, or postpone celebrations. A handful of cities have modified their Fourth of July events: one will host ‘high fireworks’ and ask people to view displays from their homes, others have cancelled everything but their fireworks display. On May 5, outdoor restrictions were relaxed, relieving some of the pressure on parks departments, but creating fresh uncertainty about whether and how to enforce physical distancing.

Public Displays: Cancel, Scale Back, or Postpone?

Some of the best-known events around the world have been cancelled: in Spain, the Running of the Bulls; in Germany, Oktoberfest; in Canada, Canada Day (July 1) will somehow be virtual; and excellent spellers across the U.S. will remain at home this year because the Scripps National Spelling Bee has cancelled its final competition. Our own federal government has not cancelled the National Independence Day celebration in Washington, D.C., sending the message that state and local governments are, shall we say, at liberty to make their own determinations about local celebrations of this national holiday. With that in mind, we offer information from local governments around the state to assist with your jurisdiction’s decision-making.

Local governments that canceled public fireworks displays and/or Fourth of July events used these key points in coming to this decision:

  • They are following current public health and safety guidance;
  • They are safeguarding — rather than spending — public funds during increasingly uncertain local government revenue projections;
  • Event-related deposit deadlines have already passed, and they want to reduce additional costs; and/or
  • They are addressing the concern that people will travel from other locations to view fireworks/celebrate.

See City of Sammamish April 9, 2020 Agenda Bill as an example on consideration of cancellations.

Local government decisions to scale back or postpone Fourth of July events were based on:

  • Ability to enforce or facilitate physical distancing;
  • Ability to modify events, change location, or use other measures to reduce or eliminate risks to the public;
  • Anticipation of reduced restrictions by the event date;
  • Community morale;
  • Concern for already expended or committed funds (no refund possible);
  • Time required to do planning and safety checks; and/or
  • Concern for/support of local businesses.

Private Displays

With the current ban on large gatherings and the cancellation of many large public displays, compliance and enforcement concerns now extend to private displays. Some cities that ban fireworks struggle annually with scofflaws despite high fines, safety campaigns discouraging illegal fireworks use, and residents asking for more effective enforcement. Legislated bans on personal use of fireworks have rarely enjoyed total compliance, and enforcement is frustratingly difficult. Now let’s add a pandemic.

Cooperation > Enforcement

Independence Day is a celebration of, well, independence. COVID-19, the uninvited guest, has reiterated how individual actions can and do affect the community. Independence Day presents an interesting backdrop for the discussion of individual actions as they relate to the community’s best interest. The substance of the debate appears to center around the public good but there is disagreement in what steps are the right ones to achieve that end.

Any well-considered public policy addresses implementation, compliance, and enforcement. Planning for noncompliance could reduce conflict in enforcement by first setting the expectation for the community and then having strategies for addressing non-compliant residents. Here are some items to consider.

Inform the public

Implement or continue with current education campaigns, tailoring them to address summertime distancing. Consider whether your education strategy will include a phone number to report violations.

Know your strategy

While surveys have shown a high level of compliance with stay-at-home orders and physical distancing protocols, there will undoubtedly be instances of residents who do not heed bans on public gatherings of a certain size. They will show up in a park, a parking lot, or at the waterfront despite public health recommendations and emergency declarations. Will these folks be cited, arrested, asked to leave, or asked to distance?

Tactics currently in use in public places around the country and the world include:

  • Deploying social distancing ambassadors. Ambassadors do not issue citations; they encourage healthy distancing. Seattle has 60 ambassadors in 15 parks and Minneapolis began an ambassador program in response to low social-distancing compliance.
  • Using signage. “Keep it Moving” signs capture the goal and potential consequences of non-compliance with just a few words.
  • Providing structural and orderly pathway and spacing hints to the public early in the season. Consider designating one-way paths in parks, like the ones some supermarkets use to reduce both confusion and contact.
  • Reconsidering parking lot usage. Some jurisdictions have closed parking lots, limited capacity, or restricted parking times.
  • Robots!

The more structure and assistance you can provide in the use of public spaces, the less likely there is to be conflict among residents and between staff and residents.

Expect unexpected visitors

If your city or town is one that allows residents to set off fireworks, you may see an increase of people traveling to your locale and larger-than-usual gatherings as people look to celebrate somewhere. Start messaging now to maintain and encourage the use of public health practices. Talk with neighboring towns, cities, or your county to ask for helping in spreading this message.

A last question to consider

What will your jurisdiction opt for regarding compliance? Many Washington jurisdictions are opting for compliance reminders rather than punishment, whether provided by park or city staff or law enforcement.

Conclusion and Legislative Note

By state law, fireworks may be sold and used between June 28-July 5 (RCW 70.77.395). Similarly, they may be sold between December 27-31 but can only discharged from 6:00 p.m. on December 31 until 1:00 a.m. on January 1 of the subsequent year, and as provided in RCW 70.77.311. Any jurisdiction may adopt more restrictive legislation, such as a ban, so long as the effective date is one year after adoption.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Laura Crandall

Laura Crandall worked for MRSC as a Public Policy Consultant and Finance Analyst from August 2018 to September 2020. She no longer works for MRSC.

Previously, Laura worked as a Management Analyst with the City of Burien and as an Analyst in the Finance Department with the City of Tukwila. Laura has an MPA from Seattle University with a focus in local government. She was selected for an ICMA Local Government Management Fellowship after graduating.

Laura served as executive director of a nonprofit for six years, and has experience in organizational and program development, staff management and mentoring, budgeting, and benefits.

VIEW ALL POSTS BY Laura Crandall


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