By Maxim Tamarov
It was 8 p.m. on Independence Day in the midst of a pandemic. The sun was just setting, but already people were spaced out six feet apart along Winthrop Shore Drive, watching the first of the clandestine fireworks that would go on well into the night.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, the official fireworks that residents normally gathered to watch on the town’s coastline and at its yacht clubs were cancelled. So, too, was the annual Horribles Parade on Pt. Shirley.
Large gatherings, which these two events generally garner, were strongly discouraged across the Commonwealth.
Russ Sanford, former president of the Winthrop Town Council and chairman of the Winthrop Foundation, said the celebrations this year were thus less jubilant than they have been in the past.
“It was kind of a more subdued, solemn holiday,” Sanford said.
Sanford explained that Winthrop had a tradition of watching fireworks put on by local hero Louis “Lou” Camacho and that his show was “a sight to behold.” Camacho, a demolition specialist in the Vietnam War, was a patriotic man who loved to blow things up and put on the annual display without profit in mind. Residents, Sanford said, always came together on July 4th for the show. Even after “Mr. Fireworks” stopped putting on displays, the town upheld the tradition with a hired company. Not so this year.
Instead, fireworks were set off illegally and seemingly at random throughout the night. Fire Chief Paul Flanagan said the amount of illicit fireworks over the July 4th weekend was “too numerous to report” and that he had not seen so many in his years at the fire department.
Paul Levy, owner of Woodside Ace Hardware, said he could still hear fireworks being set off as late as 4:30 a.m. Others, such as Winthrop Chamber of Commerce Director Betsy Shane, said the fireworks had been going all week.
“It seemed for a while that every other house was setting off fireworks,” Flanagan remarked. He added that despite this, there were no fires or injuries reported.
The Horribles Parade suffered the same fate as the official fireworks. A tradition that goes back 138 years and features residents dressing up in “crazy costumes,” the parade was something Levy said he looked forward to every year.
“I thought it was very disappointing,” Levy said of the missing fireworks and parade. “The Fourth of July is one of my favorite holidays.”
Flanagan, on the other hand, said this was the slowest and most peaceful Independence Day for him. It was the first time in 25 years that he was not involved in celebration planning and logistics.
Town Council President Phil Boncore said he took advantage of the parade being cancelled by participating in a golf tournament and then relaxing on Yirrell Beach. Boncore, Levy, Shane, and Sanford all said they hoped the tradition would be restarted next year. Flanagan said he was sure it would be.
It wasn’t just that a joyous occasion was muted. There were business repercussions to the lack of full-fledged Fourth of July celebrations as well, according to Shane. The parade and the fireworks usually bring in about 10,000 out-of-towners who spend money at town establishments.
The Winthrop Marketplace and Twist & Shake are just two examples of businesses that stayed open on July 4th to cater to people’s desires for hot dog rolls and ice cream, respectively. Other businesses that otherwise make a lot of money on Saturdays were closed for the holiday because of poor timing, which only compounded the problem.
But according to Shane, the circumstances this year led to some creativity from the residents. People were still out on the beaches (although according to Boncore, they were too close together). Because Winthrop is a waterfront community with four yacht clubs and marinas, some were out on their boats. In lieu of watching fireworks, many residents set up outdoor screens for children to social distance while hanging out and watching movies.
Another staple of the holiday in Winthrop, according to Sanford, is the ubiquity of barbeques. Almost every house on July 4th is open for residents to drop by, Sanford said. Woodside Ace Hardware, according to Levy, sold a lot of propane and barbeque grills this year likely for this reason.
“You could go ‘July 4th-hopping’,” Sanford said of previous years. This camaraderie was also absent this year. “Barbeques were still happening, but much smaller and with social distancing.”
Sanford himself celebrated with a small gathering at his house on July 3rd. He invited only immediate family, a party that was “much smaller than usual.”
Maxim Tamarov is a freelance reporter covering coronavirus and environmental issues for the Winthrop Sun Transcript. Send comments or story ideas to [email protected]