LOCKPORT, N.Y. - With the Fourth of July only hours away, Austan Brown is feeling a last-minute rush of customers at his TNT Fireworks stand on Transit Road.
It's good for business, certainly. Everybody's eager to buy whatever they can find at these local stands, as they prepare for their Independence Day celebrations.
But they're just not always sure what's legal -- and what's illegal -- here in New York state.
"We get customers that come in all week, and they say, 'can I buy M-90s? Firecrackers? Bottle rockets? We can't sell anything that leaves the ground," Brown said. "We can't sell anything with a certain amount of explosion."
That's because New York has strict laws on the books about the sale of personal fireworks. Only small sparklers and "novelty" items are allowed-- the big stuff, on the other hand, is strictly prohibited. And it's only legal in specific counties. In Western New York, those counties now include Chautauqua, Niagara, Cattaraugus, Allegany and Wyoming.
That's as a result of a major policy shift two years ago, when Gov. Cuomo signed a bill allowing counties to legalize small fireworks if they'd like. As you can see, the largest county in Western New York -- Erie County -- has not legalized the sale of the products at this time. Last week, Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein sent out a news release warning the public of the dangers of personal fireworks, instructing them to "leave fireworks to the professionals."
But in places like Niagara County, where these small products are legal, sales appear to be strong once again this year. Firework stands can only operate for a brief window of time leading up to the Fourth of July (they must shut down on July 5), but Brown said he's already getting a taste of how to operate a small business. These stand operators work as contractors to larger companies, earning a cut of the profits from the sale of the fireworks.
Operators like Brown are learning on the job.
"It's interesting talking to people. Some people, they're just happy that it's legal at all, knowing the way New York regulation usually goes," Brown said. "Others, they say, 'I'm just gonna skip out.'"
Just to the south on Transit Road, Saundra Zysek operates another TNT Fireworks stand at the intersection of Robinson Road.
She got into this business after seeing an online advertisement seeking contractors to run tents in Western New York.
"It's pretty hectic," Zysek said. "Gotta be here all day, my whole family's here, working at the stand, waiting on customers."
In the counties where personal fireworks are legal, the industry is still emerging. But it's grown quickly. Zysek estimates that her tent is one of seven firework stands in a three-mile radius of Transit Road in Lockport.
Like her counterparts, though, she's also finding that many customers are looking for products that aren't allowed under state law.
"Just gotta remind them that stuff isn't legal here in New York state, at least at this time," Zysek said. "Sometimes they buy the other stuff, sometimes they leave unhappy. But that's New York state law and you have to follow them."