On a typical Independence Day afternoon with bright sun and temperatures deep into the mid-80s, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor would be teeming with visitors.
Blankets would be spread, claiming real estate for the fireworks display, still hours away, and boats would be jockeying for prime positions.
Not this year. Not during COVID-19.
The global coronavirus pandemic has forced the cancellation of countless large public events, Baltimore’s Fourth of July fireworks display among them. City leaders called off the show months ago, in an effort to discourage the gathering of large crowds that could spread the virus.
The juxtaposition with years past was unmistakable Saturday on the meandering paths encircling the harbor, usually the hub of the city’s holiday activity. Crowds were sparse, dining tables barely occupied — in accordance with statewide restrictions — and the quiet almost deafening.
The unusual tranquility actually attracted White Marsh resident Billy Wright and his son, Cameron, 8, to the edge of the harbor where they sat tearing pieces of bread and feeding the birds. Wright, 47, a face mask around his chin in the event he had to talk to anyone, said he typically feels unwelcome as a Black man among the throngs of people who clamor to the harbor for a normal Fourth of July. He has watched the fireworks in the past from several blocks away, never venturing closer.
But this year, after a failed bid to find a pool to swim in and en route to a cookout, the pair came downtown to a spot Wright said he typically only comes on uneventful days.
“See how quiet and peaceful it is right now?” he said. “I come down here when I’m stressed. It’s a relaxing piece of mind.”
Kelly Watt and John DeLaurentis of southern New Jersey also were drawn to Baltimore by the uncharacteristic lack of hubbub. The pair abruptly canceled a holiday reservation at Rehoboth Beach on Thursday as they watched COVID-19 infections there climb. They rerouted to Baltimore where they said they felt safer.
DeLaurentis, admittedly a hater of crowds, said he was unbothered by the lack of a fireworks display. Watt said they saved money booking a hotel to stay near the harbor because of the cancellation.
“It’s a pleasure,” DeLaurentis said. “It’s not crowded.”
Mouhir and Meriem Aribi also traveled south to Baltimore for the holiday. The couple and their 4-month-old son wandered slowly along the waterfront Saturday afternoon, disappointed but unphased by the cancellation of the annual display.
Algerian natives who immigrated to the United States and settled in Philadelphia, the pair are still new to American Independence Day festivities, but the holiday conveniently falls one day prior to Algeria’s independence day, Mouhir Aribi, 34, noted.
“We’re celebrating two independence days,” he said with a smile.
Algerian independence day isn’t usually a fireworks-heavy affair, Meriem Aribi, 33, explained.
“It’s mostly the government, military,” she said pausing to mime an explosion. “And cannon fire.”
Other perches where city residents were likely to gather for fireworks also were noticeably quieter than usual Saturday afternoon. Atop Federal Hill, only a few small groups spread blankets, and a handful of children clamored onto the playground. A father taught his daughter to turn a proper cartwheel.
Elizabeth Wolfe, 34, and Will Lonczak, 32, sat in a shady spot with a small group for a socially distanced picnic and crisp glasses of rosé. The pair picked their nearby Light Street rental with its proximity to the fireworks display in mind, Lonczak said, so the city’s decision to cancel was disappointing.
Still, they were optimistic that their neighborhood firework junkies might deliver an unsanctioned display Saturday night. Lonczak said he woke up at least four or five times the night before to the explosion of pyrothechnics, a sound that has been a fixture across the city throughout the summer for better or worse.
“We still have hope,” said Wolfe, laughing.
Nearby, Jonathan Thompson, 62, of Brooklyn reclined happily on a bench overlooking the harbor, earbuds setting the mood with a favorite jazz album. Scheduled to work an overnight shift at his security gig Saturday, the Navy veteran said he wasn’t disappointed about the cancellation of the fireworks display. Instead, he was felt immensely grateful for his health amid the pandemic and to be back in his native Baltimore.
“We’re not promised tomorrow,” he said, taking a swig of water and surveying the scenery. “I’m thankful I’m not laying in a hospital bed. It’s a lot to be thankful for.”