July 2, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Since communities around the country have canceled their big fireworks displays so as not to attract crowds during a pandemic, people seem to be buying lots of fireworks to shoot off in the backyard.

The American Pyrotechnics Association said in a press release:

Consumer fireworks retailers have reported that sales are off to a record-breaking start. “The APA predicts an all-time high in backyard consumer fireworks sales and use as families prepare to celebrate Independence Day at home due to the pandemic and cancellation of large public celebrations,” says Julie L. Heckman, Executive Director of the APA.

But people are not waiting for July 4. The Boston Herald reported that Boston police recorded 1,445 firework complaints in the first week of June, which is a 2,300% increase over the same period a year ago.

In Hartford, cops are getting calls nonstop about people shooting off fireworks.

CNN reported:

California’s Alameda County, where San Francisco and Oakland are located, has received complaints about a “higher than normal use” of illegal fireworks, too, according to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department.

Southern California’s staying up all night, too.

The city of Pasadena said firework complaints are up 400%, and Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies recently seized a truckload of illegal fireworks valued at $10,000, according to CNN affiliate KCBS.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called a news conference Tuesday to say he has had it with fireworks. He said the police will go after the people selling them as well as those lighting them up. The New York Post reported:

An astounding 8,967 complaints of illegal fireworks were reported to the city’s 311 system from June 1 through Sunday — more than 320 times the 28 gripes logged in the same period last year.

Saturday alone saw 2,092 such complaints light up the system — giving The City That Never Sleeps a perfectly valid excuse.

Slate reported:

To go by the complaints cities are registering, it appears way more people are spending their free time dabbling with pyrotechnics this year. The mayor of Syracuse, New York, vowed action after a rash of 911 calls about fireworks last Tuesday night, and Syracuse police claim a 335% increase in fireworks complaints since the beginning of the year. Looking at New York City’s 311 data, I calculated a 920% year-over-year increase in fireworks complaints for the month of May. (The city made it easier to submit these complaints last June, when it began accepting reports online — but that by itself doesn’t appear to explain the May increase. The NYPD did not respond to a request for further comment.) More anecdotally, in Baltimore, “longtime residents” say individual fireworks use is noticeably more prevalent this year. In other parts of the country, Facebook and Twitter are full of complaints that it’s the worst year ever.

The fireworks business has been pretty good lately. Time explained why:

Retailers that sell those types of smaller fireworks have been buoyed by a widespread relaxation of state laws over the last few decades. Since 2000, 17 states have liberalized their fireworks laws, with Massachusetts the lone state that completely prohibits people from owning and using them. Store owners like Anthony LoBianco of Intergalactic Fireworks in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, have seen their business expand, with more and more people putting on backyard shows or elaborate gender reveal parties.

Of course, there is a conspiracy theory — boompilled

Everything in 2020 has to have a conspiracy theory. There are entire social media threads dedicated to collecting theories about who is behind all of the fireworks.

The tamest notion is that people have time on their hands and want to blow off some steam by setting off rockets. But others cooked up notions that the fireworks are meant to create community tensions.

BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman explained a new word: boompilled.

On Reddit and elsewhere, some are using the term boompilled to refer to people who’ve become convinced of government involvement in fireworks. This is a reference to being redpilled, which is used to describe someone who has rejected liberalism in favor of extreme right-wing or misogynist views.

There’s no evidence of coordinated efforts to set off fireworks for political reasons, and nothing implicates law enforcement or government agencies. A video did surface in New York of fireworks being set off by firefighters at a Brooklyn station, an incident now under investigation by the FDNY. On Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new illegal fireworks task force with more than 40 officers aimed at stopping illegal sales and use of fireworks in the city.

“The ‘fireworks conspiracy theory’ appears to be nothing more than what almost every other conspiracy is: an attempt to find a better explanation than the explanation we’re being given,” wrote conspiracy researcher Mike Rothschild on his website.

Think of the pets

I had a Labrador retriever who was petrified of fireworks, so I can just imagine what dogs who are fireworks fearful must be going through with night after night of such noise.

Remember that whatever fireworks sound like to you, for a dog they are a lot louder. Some pet owners said they have been up all night with shivering pets since this COVID-19 lockdown firework extravaganza began — like we need one more thing to worry about right now. The New York Post said:

Manhattan veterinarian Jodie Poller reports an uptick in calls from “panicky” dog owners, many of whom have adopted their pups during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Dogs and fireworks do not mix — they get anxious. It sounds like gunshots,” says Poller, owner of First Avenue Veterinary Hospital near Stuy Town. “People are calling for sedation and meds.” She often prescribes an oral drug called Trazodone that acts as an anti-anxiety agent.

The big fireworks display companies are desperate

Time reported:

Meanwhile, the companies that put on huge displays have been decimated by the cancellation of virtually all major events, from baseball games to concerts to parades. And because these companies rely disproportionately on July 4 shows, the widespread cancellation of Independence Day celebrations has left many wondering if they will make it to New Year’s without federal intervention.

“I’ve worked with these guys for 30 years — They’re desperate,” Julie Heckman, the executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, says. “I’ve never seen anything impact this industry like what’s happening right now.”

Welcome to New York. Now go away for two weeks.

During the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in New York, Florida told visitors that if they came to the Sunshine State from New York, they should self-quarantine for two weeks.

Now, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are telling people who come from Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arizona, Florida, Washington, Texas, Utah and Arkansas to plan on self-quarantining for two weeks.

Residents of those states earned the honor of sitting in a time-out by setting new records for new COVID-19 cases day after day. The request to stay away will extend to travelers coming from any state where the infection rate is 10 per 100,000 or 10% of the population on a seven-day rolling average.

So New Yorkers who are vacationing in Florida are being asked to spend two weeks at home nursing their sunburns.

Florida’s new daily chart looks like this:

(Screenshot, floridahealth.gov)

Even so, Florida schools are making plans to reopen in a month and a half.

Who will get the vaccines first when they are available?

When there is a COVID-19 vaccine, whenever that is, there will be a race for who gets it first. The battle will be to not just let the vaccines flow to the countries or populations with the most money.

Melinda Gates suggested that health care workers be first in line. The suggestion came at the Forbes Philanthropy Summit where she said, “There are 60 million health care workers (around the world). They deserve to get the vaccine first. They’re the ones dealing with this on the front lines, trying to keep us all safe.”

Then, she went down her list of who might be next:

“Then you have to start to tier from there, based on the countries and the populations. Here in the United States, it’s going to be Black people who really should get it first and many Indigenous people, as well as people with underlying symptoms, and then elderly people.”

Realize that a vaccine will most likely be given in two doses, and we will need 10 billion doses worldwide to vaccinate 80% of the global population — which is what we would need to achieve what immunologists call “herd immunity.”

By some estimates, even if we have supply lines in place and distribution happens in a fairly orderly way — both of which are BIG assumptions given our recent track records with masks, respirators and gowns — it would take about two years to vaccinate 80% of the population.

People search for work less when they exhaust unemployment benefits

It is sort of counterintuitive, but a new study shows that people who are getting unemployment checks search harder for work than when they run out of benefits.

The Chicago Federal Reserve said its data showed, “Those currently collecting benefits search more than twice as intensely as those who have exhausted their benefits.”

The Dow Jones newswire summed up the Chicago Fed study:

People on unemployment benefits on average spend more than 14 hours a week job searching and send more than 12 applications a month. Unlike those who have exhausted their benefits, they are more likely to not settle for a job that pays less than what they were previously paid. People who have exhausted their benefits spend over 12 hours a week job searching on average and send out over nine applications a month.

If an individual is unable to secure a new job within that six-month period, they become more pessimistic about job opportunities, and hence are more likely to accept a job that pays less than what they previously made.

Giving to social justice funds is way up

Since the protests over the death of George Floyd began, social justice funds have seen an outpouring of contributions. The New York Times reported:

The Minnesota Freedom Fund, which pays bail for those who cannot afford it and received online support from some celebrities, took in a remarkable $20 million in a matter of days — so much that its website was now encouraging donors to give elsewhere.

The Times said more than 30,000 people donated more than $1.6 million to the Chicago Community Bail Fund. In Los Angeles, the People’s City Council Freedom Fund went viral and raised more than $2.5 million. And:

A GoFundMe memorial fund established by Mr. Floyd’s brother had raised more than $14 million from more than a half-million contributors.

The way we work now

I am a fan of Manny Bojorquez, so I am glad viewers are looking out after him.

(Screenshot, Facebook)

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Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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