Flint Twp., MI—While many love to watch the red, white, and blue fireworks light up the sky at Independence Day celebrations, not everyone considers the people who make those explosive shows happen.

The pandemic has brought a mix of challenges and opportunities to the Flint area’s two fireworks stores, Phantom Fireworks and Red Apple Fireworks, both on Miller Road. 

“For starters, prices are up because of shipping,” said customer service representative Scott Milam at Red Apple. 

The great majority of America’s fireworks are shipped from China each year. According to data published in Forbes, China was responsible for 94% of fireworks imports to the United States in 2019.

But over the last year and a half, COVID-19’s impact on America’s main fireworks supplier has reached retailers thousands of miles away in the Flint area.

“It’s not only the customers who are upset,” Milam continued, “of course we’re upset too.”

Neither store gave specific numbers, but the increased shipping costs for fireworks importers have been passed on to customers in the form of higher prices for the same products, resulting in difficult choices for fireworks enthusiasts. 

“I’m not even putting on my show this year because of it,” said Milam, now in his tenth season working for Red Apple Fireworks. “I have two acres of property. I have a bunch of neighbors who put money into a bank account,” he said, “and we just all decided we’re going to wait till next year.” 

Many industries were affected by supply chain disruptions during the pandemic. “But it’s condensed with the fireworks industry,” said Chris Carlstriom, manager at nearby Phantom Fireworks, “we have a smaller window of need.” 

Carlstriom said the July 4 holiday makes up a large part of many consumer fireworks stores’ income each year. “It’s like 90 to 95% of our sales,” he said. 

This concentration of sales around Independance Day is partially because of Michigan’s Fireworks Safety Act of 2011, which was amended in December 2018 to limit the days residents can legally set off fireworks.

The act’s list of legal days includes New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, and Labor Day. However, it also provides lead time into the July 4 holiday: residents may set off fireworks as early as June 29. 

With more time to legally shoot fireworks comes more fireworks sales.

Even with current concerns around higher prices and limited inventory, both of Flint’s fireworks stores reported their businesses have done well through the pandemic. 

“We got a lot of first-time purchasers,” said Carlstriom of Phantom’s customers in 2020. 

“Yeah, a lot of government agencies, the festivals, the parks,” said Carlstriom’s colleague Aaron Franks, a loss prevention and security manager for Phantom’s warehouse division, “All of these places that would normally have fireworks shows were shut down. So people that wanted to celebrate the Fourth of July had to do it on their own.”

The Phantom team’s experience reflects last year’s national trend. According to the American Pyrotechnics Association (APA), U.S. consumer fireworks industry revenue in 2020 went up  $900 million compared to 2019. But this year, the APA said it expects around 70% of Independence Day’s approximately 16,000 nationwide shows—the ones that feature professional fireworks, known as “display fireworks” in the industry—will be back, potentially detracting from 2021 revenue for consumer fireworks retailers like those in the Flint area.

For now, the focus at both local stores is to manage the holiday rush that began in early June. “Imagine Black Friday as a month and a half,” said Carlstriom. Both Phantom and Red Apple have extended their hours and brought in extra staff to support the influx of customers. Afterward, on July 5, is when fireworks teams can rest.

“It’s kind of like a giant party just went through,” Carlstriom explained. “So we have to take a couple of days to clean up, destress, make everything look pretty again.”

Then, it’s on to preparation for Labor Day and 2022, when Milam hopes things—prices, supply, and the Flint community’s health—will be back to normal.

“Next year,” Milam smiled as he repositioned a fireworks display, “we’re going nuts.”

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....