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Drive-In Theaters Can Get You Out of the House and Keep You Safe

You can see summer movies and follow the social distancing rules

spinner image Parking spots are separated by orange fencing for social distancing at the Ocala Drive-in Theatre
People enjoy “Trolls” from their cars, separated from other cars, in Ocala, Florida, on April 26, 2020.
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The pandemic has forced everyone to put all types of precautions in place, but that doesn't mean you can't leave the house and create some fond memories.

Consider the drive-in movie theater, that family-fun activity of boomers’ childhoods. Drive-in owners are poised to ride the wave of physical distancing to keep the coronavirus contained and tap into a bit of nostalgia. Many have or are setting up sites that offer wide, safe parking slots; revised rules on concessions; extra cleaning in restrooms; and even relief areas for dogs.

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"I like the concept of drive-ins as a way to phase in getting back to normal,” says Kenneth Koncilja, M.D., a geriatric specialist at Cleveland Clinic in New Brunswick, Ohio. “If you've got to stay in a contained space that's viral free, that could be your car. And if you have larger outside zones, like 30 to 60 feet, I really like that, too."

A short history of the first drive-in theater

Though drive-in movie theaters’ heyday was the 1950s, they debuted more than a decade before the end of World War II. Some trivia for your next game night:

• The first drive-in theater. Though some people used indoor projectors outdoors for shows before this, Richard Hollingshead, a chemical company owner whose mother couldn't fit comfortably in indoor theater seats, opened the first film venue specifically for cars on June 6, 1933, in Camden, New Jersey.

That first movie. A 1932 British comedy titled Wives Beware for American audiences (originally called Two White Arms) was about a man in an unsatisfying marriage who fakes amnesia to pursue another woman.

• Ticket price. 25 cents for the car plus 25 cents a person. If you could cram more than three people inside, the cost remained capped at $1. That was a bit of a luxury considering indoor movie prices at the time were often 25 cents a person.

• Size. Hollingshead established his drive-in, which doesn't appear to have had a formal name, on 400 acres on U.S. 30 at Camden's border with Pennsauken Township, about 2.5 miles east of Philadelphia. His ad promised individual driveways three times the length of your car.

• Lifespan. His drive-in, opened in the midst of the Great Depression, lasted only 14 months. It closed because it couldn't make a profit. It also was hampered by an early RCA Victor sound system that couldn't reach all cars.

Source: The Historical Society of Riverton, New Jersey

Americans who want to get out of the house and see a movie may like the idea, too. More than 4 out of 5 respondents don't want indoor cinemas to reopen as governors ease restrictions on businesses, according to a nationwide Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released May 5.

The 305 drive-in movie theaters across the country — down from a high of more than 4,000 in 1958, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association — have regained some popularity in the past few years as new owners worked to revitalize them.

Adapting to the new normal

John Watzke, owner and manager of Ocala Drive-In in Florida, about 60 miles northwest of Orlando, lived on the Mississippi coast during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, so he knows what a disaster can do to businesses. He was an early believer in COVID-19's power to destroy traditions.

So in Ocala, he doubled the space around cars, introduced online ordering from the concession stand with delivery to your numbered parking space, added a walk-up concession window to increase food sales and established a special area for people who need to walk their dogs. The extra attention to concessions is important because that's the revenue that keeps him in business, he says.

But most important to his customers: He has assigned one staffer to constantly clean the restrooms. And he and his face-masked crew patrol and monitor the behavior of patrons and workers to ensure safety.

"I'm very strict,” he says. “I tell people if you don't respect social distance [and our other safeguards], you are asked to leave. And there will be no refund."

His drive-in does a capacity business every night, he says. Capacity is about half of what it was before the coronavirus outbreak because of increased space around vehicles.

The business got its 15 minutes of fame when it reported the only box-office revenue for the weekend of April 17. The first-run movies playing on his two screens, Resistance and Swallow, each grossed $2,490.

Customers should not let their own safety practices lapse, even when others around them are enforcing restrictions, says Thomas A. Russo, M.D., a professor and chief of the division of infectious diseases at University of Buffalo's Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in New York.

"Any person that you interact with, no matter how they're feeling, could infect you. Or otherwise you could infect them,” he says. “So minimize social interactions with other individuals. And if you interact, wear masks, maintain distance and remember hand hygiene."

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It's also important to go to a drive-in only with those who live in your household. Now is not the time to gather grandchildren and other relatives who don't live together for an outing.

Even if you live with your grandkids, going with them to the drive-in might pose special risks, says Charles P. Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Car seats are filled with germs.

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"It's very important to wipe those down with disinfecting wipes,” he says. “Waste containers, coffee cup holders and other areas also need to be wiped down.” Before and after your excursion, remember to clean the door handles, dashboards, window buttons and other areas of a car that are touched often.

Keep your distance from friends, relatives

But he does think that taking two cars and maintaining distance at the drive-in is a way to have a more personal visit than a video chat. Just make certain that any children in another vehicle can control the urge to run over to say hi.

By the numbers

• 1933. Year the first drive-in theater opened

• 4,063. Number of drive-ins nationwide at its peak in 1958

• 305. Number of drive-ins as of October 2019

• 549. Total number of screens at those theaters

• 63. Previously closed drive-ins that have reopened since the 1990s; 11 closed again

• 42. Drive-ins built since the 1990s; 4 have closed

• 5. States with no drive-ins in 2019. They were Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana and North Dakota. The District of Columbia also has no drive-ins; Puerto Rico has one.

Source: United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association

"I think it's great to find an activity that can be safe to get out of the house,” Russo says. “Social isolation at home can be very hard. So finding creative ways to interact, be out and about, is great. I think this is a fascinating opportunity for seniors."

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The extraordinarily large parking spaces at the Ocala Drive-In allow patrons to sit in lawn chairs close to their vehicles with plenty of space around them. The space also allows people to stretch their legs and otherwise move while at the drive-in though Watzke and his crew ensure boundaries aren't crossed. Still, Russo recommends face masks and hand sanitizer.

"You can only control what you see. You can't control what goes on behind [the scenes],” he says.

One thing not to worry about: gloves, either disposable or cotton, Russo and Koncilja say.

"For some people who have to be out of the house and might be immunocompromised, it makes sense,” Russo says. “But it depends how you use them. I think they provide a false sense of security” because gloves can transmit germs. People can forget that and touch their face.

'People look forward to movie night'

Owner Stephen Sauerbeck of Sauerbeck Family Drive-In in La Grange, Kentucky, about 20 miles northeast of Louisville, bought his theater a few years ago and was set to open March 20. The closing of nonessential businesses in that state stymied his plans until May 2.

"I was heartbroken that we were being required to stay closed, and it was not fun refunding all those tickets,” he said just before he received permission to open. “People look forward to movie night, and we love being a part of that."

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spinner image People eat in their car while waiting for the show to start at the Ocala Drive-in Theatre
Moviegoers eat concession food at the Ocala Drive-In theater on April 26, 2020.
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Before he was able to negotiate special rules with his county's health department, his family was selling popcorn for two hours every Friday and Saturday night at his theater's drive-through concession stand. Now he sells admission tickets online only; has online ordering for candy, popcorn and soda to be picked up at the drive-up window before customers find a parking space; charges $5 additional per vehicle for those who want to bring more substantial food from home; and requires people to stay in their cars. His restrooms are closed.

State and local rules about closures and reopenings apply to drive-ins. Make sure to look online or call before you go, to find out restrictions for customers as well as safeguards that the theater has added to make your visit as safe as possible.

The joy of a drive-in theater is something that Watzke in Ocala hopes will continue long after the pandemic has abated.

"I'm just hoping that even after this situation, customers realize how safe drive-in theaters are,” he says. “If you see a movie at a [traditional] theater, you remember the movie. If you see it at a drive-in, it is a memory."

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