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Forget Clorox wipes, fireworks are the new hot thing

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Sterling Heights — Forget disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer, fireworks are the new hot commodity during the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's almost as if we are a cure to the inside-the-home isolation," said Bruce Zoldan, CEO of Youngstown, Ohio-based Phantom Fireworks, a large fireworks company with about 80 stores through the U.S., including southeast Michigan. "If there's a virus called ... inside isolation, fireworks appear to be the vaccine."

Joel Klein and Felicia Wrobel of Warren load fireworks into their shopping cart at Phantom Fireworks in Sterling Heights.

Families are filling fireworks stores across Michigan to stock up for the Fourth of July holiday since many sky-illuminating shows are canceled this year to prevent large gatherings. The result: booming fireworks sales and, possibly, extra noisy neighborhoods.

"As we opened stores, we saw this overwhelming demand for fireworks," said Zoldan, noting sales are 200-400% higher from last year every day. "I'm not sure the consumer side of the fireworks business will have enough inventory when we get to what are typical big days, the last week before the Fourth of July."

Felicia Wrobel, 27, and Joel Klein, 28, of Warren were stocking up at Phantom's Sterling Heights store on Wednesday before they head up north to Houghton Lake for a booming celebration. They typically spend more than $1,000 on fireworks, and this year they aren't backing down. 

"I just like things blowing up in the sky," Klein said. 

Robert Bahnke, right, regional manager for Pro Fireworks, helps Frank Woodard load up $1,200  worth of fireworks at the Sterling Heights store.

Down the street at Pro Fireworks' Sterling Heights store, Frank Woodard, 58, of Shelby Township was loading up his minivan with $1,200 worth of fireworks. Woodard has put on shows for his 11 grandchildren for several years and definitely planned to do a big show this year since many city shows are canceled. 

"I am a VIP status around here," he said. He buys "everything that's good," from big-boom aerials to sparklers.

Pro Fireworks Regional Manager Robert Bahnke helped load up all of Woodard's boxes of merchandise. Bahnke is selling a lot of every type of firework at the Sterling Heights store.

"The stimulus is out. That's definitely helping us," he said, crediting the checks being sent by the federal government. "With all of the cities canceling their displays, people are pretty much making their own this year."

Bahnke's inventory is "dwindling" but said "hell or high water, I will have inventory in here" for the holiday. 

Sales this year are almost triple what they were in 2019 at the Pro Fireworks store in Center Line, said assistant store manager Adriana Schwartz.

"I think a whole bunch of people are getting a lot of unemployment money, and they have a lot of time on their hands and money to blow ... literally and figuratively," she said.

James Stephan, regional manager for Grand Rapids-based Pro Fireworks, which has 13 stores across Michigan, has noticed a change in clientele this year. 

Frank Woodard (left) is assisted by Robert Bahnke, regional manager, Pro Fireworks, fills Woodard's Dodge Caravan with hundreds dollars worth of fireworks from Pro Fireworks in Sterling Heights on June 17, 2020 for the Fourth of July holiday and beyond.

"Previous years, it was always your big fireworks shooters who were putting on a couple-thousand-dollar show," he said. "This year we have noticed, with a lot of cities banning fireworks shows or gatherings, a lot more families come in spending $30 on driveway fireworks or spending $50 on something to use in the backyard."

Warren Mayor Jim Fouts recently received fireworks complaints from residents "that they are starting earlier, and they are louder and that they last longer."

"The biggest complaint is that 'my animals are going crazy.' They say it’s like being in a war zone. I remind them that the State of Michigan allows this to go on," he said.

Fouts wants there to be "more reasonable control" of fireworks by the state, and instead of supporting the fireworks, industry legislators should "start supporting people with pets, people who have to get up to go to work the next day."

Michigan lawmakers last year cut back the number of days when municipalities are required to allow fireworks from 30 to 12 days each year, with most falling near the Fourth of July holiday. Local governments have to allow private fireworks displays until 11:45 p.m. June 29 to July 4 — and until 11:45 p.m. July 5, if that date falls on a Friday or Saturday. This year, July 5 falls on a Sunday.

Taylor Almond, 32, of Harper Woods has noticed an increase in fireworks this year. The booms have been going off consistently in his neighborhood since Memorial Day and often last until 1 a.m. 

Alaina Macksoud, a cashier at Phantom Fireworks, stocks one of the many prepackaged firework bundles at Phantom Fireworks of Sterling Heights on June 17, 2020.

"I'm a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, I've got PTSD, so it's incredibly frustrating for me because I don't want to be one of those people that's like 'hey, quit celebrating because of my problem," he said. "It's pretty frustrating. It makes me really anxious ... in my experience, it’s not loud noises that are the problem, it’s the unexpected loud noises."

Phantom Fireworks' Zoldan believes part of the sales increase is a result of people staying home this summer instead of going on vacation. To fill that gap, they want to have backyard events with family and friends. He's noticed almost half of the customers at his stores are new. 

He expects demand to grow in the next couple of weeks.

"We think that the last week, if we have inventory left, will be very difficult," he said. "The lines could be hours long to get in because of social distancing ... people wait until the last minute. That won't work this year for the fireworks industry."


Twitter: @bykaleahall