OCEAN CITY — The traditional Fourth of July fireworks shows in Ocean City are being postponed as expected after a divided City Council reached the decision, but there are a handful of alternative dates on the table.
Last week, City Manager Doug Miller announced at the close of the Mayor and Council meeting the recommendation from the staff after consulting with the county health department and reviewing the current state guidelines for COVID-19 was to postpone the traditional Fourth of July fireworks displays downtown off the Boardwalk and at Northside Park and explore alternative dates. Miller’s recommendation was met with little discussion and no formal vote was taken last week.
However, following last week’s meeting, Miller conducted an informal poll of the councilmembers to gauge their opinion on the proposed postponement and a narrow 4-3 majority agreed it was the best decision. As a result, the Fourth of July fireworks displays have been postponed, and staff is working with the fireworks company on alternative dates later in the summer or in the fall.
Special Events Director Frank Miller told the Mayor and Council he was working with Celebration Fireworks Inc. on new dates. For example, the OC Air Show is close to pinning down its weekend in August and the fireworks planned for the Fourth of July could be added as an exclamation point of sorts on that event.
Another possible date is Labor Day Sunday, which would provide not so much a celebration of what is turning out to be an unusual summer, but a celebration of the arrival of the fall season and all that Ocean City has to offer, according to Doug Miller. Yet another possibility is shooting off the fireworks in conjunction with a New Year’s Eve celebration.
In May, before Ocean City and the rest of the state began slowly recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mayor and Council was still weighing the possibility of hosting the Fourth of July fireworks and agreed to put down the $13,750 non-refundable deposit for the roughly $55,000 contract with the fireworks vendor.
The contract included contingency dates in August and September, but did not lock the town down on those specific dates. Essentially, the alternative dates were placeholders in the contract and the town is free to work with the vendor on any alternatives depending on where the state is the COVID recovery plan.
“Back at the beginning of COVID, there were two contingency dates based on our thoughts at the time on where we would be in the recovery stage,” he said. “That’s why those dates in August and September are in there, but we’re not held to those dates.”
Council President Lloyd Martin agreed the uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 recovery stages and the directives still in place made postponing the Fourth fireworks an easy decision for him.
“We don’t know yet where we will be with COVID,” he said. “I like the alternative Labor Day date.”
Frank Miller said he has learned most public and private entities that have already postponed Fourth of July fireworks are targeting Labor Day as an alternative.
“Labor Day weekend is a good possibility,” he said. “Labor Day should be looked at as July 4th. The fireworks company said most that are postponing their Fourth of July fireworks are now targeting Labor Day. We could follow that trend, or we could do something different.”
Council Secretary Mary Knight said a concerted effort should be made to send a positive message about the Fourth of July holiday in Ocean City despite no fireworks this year.
“Everyone else all around us is cancelling the Fourth of July fireworks,” she said. “We need to put a positive spin on it. We still have the sun and the beach and Boardwalk, and we have more outdoor dining opportunities than ever. That’s the message. Put all of the positives out there and remind people of all there is to do in Ocean City.”
Knight also pointed out there are already fireworks planned for July 5 as part of the typical Sundaes in the Park event. She said the town should make an effort to remind the public the smaller Sundaes in the Park fireworks show should not be confused with the postponed Fourth shows.
Councilman Matt James was one of councilmembers in favor of hosting the fireworks shows on the actual Fourth. He said having the traditional holiday fireworks shows does not mean everyone has to concentrate in small areas.
“I was one of the three against postponing,” he said. “We need good news. We need something to celebrate. We need to decide if we’re open or if we’re not open, because we can’t have it both ways. People can see the fireworks from miles away and wherever they feel safest. Having the fireworks doesn’t mean everybody has to cram into downtown.”
However, Frank Miller said there was no clear guidance on gathering sizes in the state’s latest directives and reiterated the recommendation was to postpone the Fourth fireworks.
“As it stands now, there is no definition of gathering size in the state orders,” he said. “There are still a lot of risks with moving forward with the Fourth. When we hit August, we think we’ll be in a different stage in the recovery plan. Postponing the fireworks on the Fourth seems like the right thing to do.”
Frank Miller said in his conversations with the Air Show producers, the plans for that event already include practicing and encouraging social distancing and the other state safety precautions, so piggybacking on those plans could make sense for Ocean City.
“The OC Air Show will likely hold their event in August,” he said. “The Air Show has made a real concerted effort in their plans to observe the guidelines and practice social distancing, so coordinating our fireworks with their event could make a lot of sense.”
Mayor Rick Meehan did not vote in the city’s manager’s informal poll, nor was he asked to. However, he did say postponing the Fourth fireworks, while not an easy decision, was the right one.
“This was a difficult decision,” he said. “I’ve been here watching fireworks on the Fourth for as long as I can remember, but I support this decision. Look where we are. We’re still in a state of emergency in Maryland.”
Meehan pointed out thousands of visitors to Ocean City do not appear to be observing the COVID-19 guidelines while on vacation.
“Some people seem to think Ocean City is a COVID-free zone, but it isn’t,” he said. “We have to remain vigilant and we have to lead by example. The beach down there will be packed if we have them. The next thing you know we’ll be back on the national news in a negative way for how not to do social distancing.”
Meehan also referenced the recent negative publicity from an acute violent crime spree that appears to be waning as another reason not to host the fireworks and cram people into the downtown area on the Fourth.
“We’ve turned a corner and we’re getting ready to enter that traditional next phase in our summer season,” he said. “Things have quieted down already. We don’t want to take a step back and give up the ground we’ve already gained.”