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Fireworks Approved At Mount Rushmore; Officials Mum On COVID Precautions

South Dakota Tourism

The National Park Service plans to hold a fireworks show on July 3 at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, despite environmental concerns and fears about the spread of COVID-19.  

There hasn’t been a fireworks show at Mount Rushmore in more than a decade. Several problems prompted the Park Service to put an end to the massive spectacles. Embers from the fireworks caused wildfires, chemicals in the fireworks polluted water, and debris from fireworks shells littered the ground. 

When Kristi Noem became governor, she asked President Donald Trump to bring the fireworks back. The Park Service did a months-long assessment and announced a finding Tuesday that the fireworks will have no significant impact on the environment.  

Gov. Noem said in a Tuesday press conference that the state could hit its peak of COVID-19 infections around mid-June, with the fireworks show a couple of weeks later. But Noem gave no specifics about the public health considerations of such an event.  

“We’re going to continue to evaluate the event and what it looks like, if people will be there, how many people will be there, and how we’ll facilitate it,” Noem said. “So obviously public health will be a concern into the future and we’ll make adjustments.” 

The Park Service says it can address the previous problems. Firefighters will put out any flareups and the show will be canceled if conditions are dangerous. Water testing can measure for any chemical pollution. And the fireworks vendor – still being chosen by the state Tourism Department – will have to clean up debris. 

Thousands of people have watched past fireworks shows at the memorial. But neither the 35-page environmental decision nor a two-page press release from the Park Service gave any detail about prevention measures to stop the spread of COVID-19.   

Maureen McGee-Ballinger is a spokeswoman for Mount Rushmore National Memorial. She said protecting public health is a priority. 

“We’ll be looking at what the governor has to say, we’ll be looking at the president’s Opening Up America guidelines, so that is one of the conditions to determine how the event would proceed,” McGee-Ballinger said. 

In Rapid City, 20 miles from Mount Rushmore, Mayor Steve Allender is concerned. 

“I was at the last Mount Rushmore fireworks display, and it was chaos – people standing right next to each other packed in like sardines,” Allender said, “so I don’t know how they would possibly manage social distancing or spacing between viewers and still purport to have any real, safe plan going forward.” 

A vocal opponent of the proposed fireworks event is Paul Horsted, a photographer from Custer. He’s concerned about the environment and public health. 

“I think it’s pretty clear this is a political decision, not really a scientific one,” Horsted said. “When I speak privately to frontline Park Service workers, they’re against this but obviously can’t speak out against it.” 

Cheryl Schreier, who was superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial before retiring last year, also senses political motivation. 

“I’m extremely disappointed; however, I’m not surprised,” Schreier said. “Under the political situation, obviously it was a political decision and not an environmental decision, or a public safety or health decision. It’s a somewhat reckless and irresponsible decision.” 

President Trump has said he’d like to attend a Mount Rushmore fireworks show. There’s been no formal statement from the White House about whether the president will attend. 

Later Tuesday, Mount Rushmore National Memorial sent another news release saying it will conduct a prescribed burn Wednesday. Although the release did not connect the burn to the fireworks, Park Service officials previously said prescribed burns would be conducted to reduce natural fuel for any fires sparked by the fireworks.  

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