LOS ANGELES — Fireworks have been lighting up night skies across America, despite normally being set off almost exclusively on July 4. Red, white, blue and bright, these low-impact pyrotechnics are to “America’s birthday” as quickly melting candles on a cake are to yours or mine.
With coronavirus cases steadily climbing in states across the country, though, the holiday — and the public, community-oriented traditions that honor it — is being compromised this year.
Los Angeles, like many cities, is figuring out how to celebrate Independence Day at a distance. California’s virus cases have been steadily climbing since March, and more than 100,000 of the state’s infections have been detected in Los Angeles County. (Hospitalizations in the Golden State recently swelled by 51 percent in two weeks after the reopening of bars and restaurants.)
Local holiday traditions, many of them being redesigned for the first time in their history, are moving online. It’s a concession to safety that may sacrifice a bit of the explosive fraternity bursting from a day that is reserved for American patriotism for some, and backyard bonding and good food for others.
In Pasadena, the Rose Bowl is a veritable pilgrimage site on July 4; AmericaFest, hosted annually by the sports stadium since 1927, is a fireworks show flanked by tailgates, live music and motorcycle stunts for an audience of families.
The festival usually attracts about 60,000 attendees, who either sky-gaze from stadium seats inside the bowl or set up folding chairs and picnic around the perimeter.
Based on early registration numbers, the organizers at the Rose Bowl expect to have a similarly large audience this year. But spectators will be looking at their computers or phones from home instead of up at the sky from the stadium grounds.
Darryl Dunn, the stadium’s chief executive and general manager, said the event was usually a “gathering place” for families looking to celebrate the holiday together.
“It’s a spectacular show that oohs and aahs people — it’s all about patriotism,” he said. “We’re very proud of our history and our traditions. July 4 is one that we embrace.”
Mr. Dunn and his team quickly realized that socially distancing at a fireworks show would be impossible, so they pivoted to engineering a virtual event for Pasadena residents (and admirers further afield) to watch from home.
“We thought, if we’re going to say no, we have to do something,” Mr. Dunn said. “We have to make some lemonade out of this.”
This year’s virtual AmericaFest will be prerecorded and will stream Saturday afternoon on the stadium’s social media channels. It will feature a solo cello concert from the telescope dome atop the Mount Wilson Observatory, and a prism-centric art installation called “Sunstar,” a collaboration between an artist and an astrophysicist.
This experimental festival will end with a flyover piloted by Gabe Lopez, who will be accompanied by his father, Edward J. Lopez, 96, a World War II veteran.
“The fun part of this whole thing is we’re flying an airplane that he first learned to fly in, in 1943,” Gabe Lopez said of his father, who was a member of the 365th Fighter Bomber group known as the Hell Hawks. The aircraft they’ll be flying across the San Gabriel Valley is a sunflower-yellow 1940 Stearman, a model that Navy and Army Air Corps cadets used during training.
“You can’t get much more social distancing than an airplane flying over,” said Mr. Lopez, who plans to have a camera installed on board that will transmit live footage to people watching at home. “You will see as if you were sitting on my wing,” he said.
So while the camaraderie that comes from attending the daylong tailgate is lost, the symbiotic relationship between technology and self-isolation may allow for a new American tradition to take hold.
Roughly 40 miles from the Rose Bowl sits the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, in Ventura County’s Simi Valley. The library, which suffered considerable damage in a wildfire last October, typically holds a daylong celebration on July 4 that draws between 3,500 and 4,500 people.
“We’ve been doing this for over 20 years,” said Melissa Giller, chief marketing officer at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, adding that July 4 was President Reagan’s favorite holiday.
Daytime activities for children abound, including face-painting, water-balloon tosses and horseshoes. “We have an indoor section where various look-alikes of our forefathers give 45-minute presentations on their life,” Ms. Giller said. An official Los Angeles Police Department band usually performs too.
This year, the marketing team started to brainstorm ways to shift the event online. It filmed Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln doppelgängers delivering monologues, and Boy Scout troops pledging allegiance to the flag from the library. Many of the arts and crafts activities — like coloring sheets and presidential bingo — can be downloaded on the library’s website.
The program is set to run roughly two hours, and will be streamed on YouTube. “What we’re losing is togetherness,” Ms. Giller said. “But what we’re gaining, the Reagan library as a brand, is we’re actually reaching more people now than we’ve ever reached before. We’ve been able to attract people who otherwise might not be able to come.”
Of course, there’s the possibility that losing traditions on a holiday like July 4 provides the chance to reimagine how Americans define nationhood, what this country symbolizes, and what is even worth celebrating.
“Its really about the ritual, and it’s not really about the meaning of the holiday itself,” said Nina Eliasoph, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California who specializes in political and cultural sociology.
“The origin of the word ‘holiday’ is ‘holy day,’ and holy days were mandatory — things that everyone got a day off for,” she said. “The Middle Ages had millions of Saint Days, which were sort of a way of orienting yourself in time. That’s one of the big functions of a holiday, and the other is getting together.”
For many Americans, the Fourth of July has become more about thematic barbecues and, if you’re lucky, time-and-a-half pay for clocking in to work, and less about the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
“The ritual is disconnected from the event it celebrates,” Dr. Eliasoph said. “It’s more about declaring, ‘I’m a member of this group.’”
So, then, how do we demonstrate that we are American without well-worn traditions — most of which require being in close contact — to do the gesturing for us?
“Historians have this concept of ‘invented tradition’ and of ‘imagined community,’ and the idea is that your nation or your tradition exists only when it is symbolized,” Dr. Eliasoph said. National totems, like maps and newspapers and flags, come to define a nation more than any one concept or identity, she said.
What that suggests is that even beyond the coronavirus, traditions around Independence Day — which, like independence itself, can mean completely different things to different Americans — will continue to shift and adapt to new eras.
And people may ultimately just want the fellowship that springs from waving the same flag. Even if it’s over the internet.