Customers line up to buy fireworks at Phantom Fireworks in Scarborough on Thursday. Many towns have scaled back on their Fourth of July celebrations this year as the state emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, but most are still planning to hold fireworks shows. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

For many communities around Maine, this Fourth of July will mark not only the country’s independence but also the symbolic start of a long road back to normalcy.

By most measures, the pandemic that has gripped the world for 16 months has faded in Maine, thanks in large part to the state’s high vaccination rate. But it hasn’t disappeared, and in towns big and small, local officials have been forced to make difficult decisions about just how normal things should be this holiday weekend.

Some cities and towns are returning completely to celebrations of years past, while others have canceled the celebration completely for a second straight year. Most communities, however, are employing a hybrid model that combines elements from years past while still adapting to the challenges COVID-19 has presented.

Store employee Jon Brownsey, center, helps Carl Dagnese of Portland find fireworks Thursday at Phantom Fireworks in Scarborough. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Bath, usually home to the state’s largest Fourth of July celebration, is doing just that. The city canceled its yearly parade but has committed to having as much of a traditional celebration as possible, complete with live music, an antique car show and fireworks over the Kennebec River.

Amanda McDaniel, director of Main Street Bath, a not-for-profit that organizes the Independence Day celebrations, said this weekend’s festivities are an opportunity for residents to draw strength from the town’s history and traditions.

“It is vital to have connections to our roots and to our history, because it shows that we can weather things,” she said. “And that we have the stamina and strength and connections and partnership and community to get through something like the pandemic together.”

Lindsey Goudreau, director of communications for the city of Bath, explained that it wasn’t the current public health restrictions that prevented Bath from having a normal celebration, but rather the logistical obstacles the pandemic posed. Ordinarily, planning for the holiday begins in January, but this year the organizers were not able to begin planning in earnest until Gov. Janet Mills lifted the mask mandate and ended the state of emergency.

“Obviously, now that we are here, folks are a little bit bummed out because it’s like ‘I could have done it,’ you know?” Goudreau said. “But, of course, hindsight is 20/20.”

Nicole Farnsworth of Buxton loads bags of fireworks into her car after shopping at Phantom Fireworks in Scarborough. She said she was headed to a camp in Aroostook County for the holiday weekend. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Similarly, in Portland, city officials and organizers of the Independence Day celebrations realized early on that they could not commit to a full-scale celebration, opting instead to focus on organizing a fireworks display with plenty of space for social distancing. City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said organizers wanted to make sure there was room for everyone at the celebration, even those who are not yet comfortable with large crowds or going maskless in public.

“The idea this year was to get back to some sort of normalcy but to be extra cautious. We did not want to have a huge mass gathering this soon (after the pandemic),” Grondin said. “And I think you will find that there are some people who are ready to go right back into things, but there are some people who are happier to do gatherings outside and are still being cautious and don’t want to be around people … whose vaccination status they do not know. So, I think (the fireworks) are a healthy in-between as we get out of this and move on.”

Lewiston and Auburn, which collaborate each year on Fourth of July festivities, will host a scaled-back version this year. There won’t be any vendors, music or other events, but there will be a fireworks display over Great Falls and the Androscoggin River.

Bangor and its sister city Brewer also have opted for a smaller event. According to the Greater Bangor 4th of July Corporation, the parade and fireworks will still go on, but the annual pancake breakfast and charity concert will not take place.

Concerns about moving too fast after 16 months of pandemic restrictions prompted two York County towns, Kennebunk and Ogunquit, to cancel their Independence Day celebrations. In a news release, the Ogunquit Chamber of Commerce cited large crowds and a lack of adequate space for social distancing in their decision to cancel Fourth of July activities for the second year in a row.

Chris Arborio of Shapleigh shops at Phantom Fireworks on Thursday, ahead of the weekend when he is hosting a lakeside celebration at his camp. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In Kennebunk, Town Manager Michael Pardue explained that similar factors prevented the town from organizing any official celebration when they made the decision in April.

“It was a difficult decision,” Pardue said. “We took all of those factors into consideration, recognizing that (at that point) we had in place an executive order that we could not bring mass gatherings together, and that we had a very high tide, right at about the time we would launch the fireworks, we would have had people clustered very close to one another. We just, in good conscience, had to make the decision … to postpone.”

Instead, Kennebunk has tentatively planned to launch fireworks on Labor Day Weekend in September.

“I have a lot of optimism that Labor Day weekend will provide us the opportunity to bring a lot of people together,” Pardue said. “To celebrate people back together going about a normal life.”

A little farther up the coast, things will look more normal this weekend. Old Orchard Beach will launch fireworks on the beach in front of Palace Playland on Sunday night and then will host its 71st Independence Day parade on Monday at 10 a.m. The parade will be followed by a band concert at the town’s bandstand. Participants are still asked to wear a mask, even though there is no longer a mandate, and practice social distancing.

Robert Regan, right, and Patrick Noonan, both of South Portland, listen to a store representative as they shop at Phantom Fireworks in Scarborough. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Augusta also is planning for a full return to traditional festivities. An Independence Day Parade will start in the afternoon Sunday, followed by live music and culminating in a fireworks show over Mill Park.

Bruce Chase, Augusta’s director of Parks and Recreation, said a normal celebration of Independence Day was a priority for his department and important for his community in bouncing back after this difficult year.

“We want people to get outside and enjoy the Fourth of July like we used to do in the past,” Chase said. “And I think that’s the key: let people get back to normal and enjoy this marvelous day that we celebrate our independence.”


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