The allure of the drive-in theater is seeing a resurgence amid the coronavirus pandemic currently sweeping the nation. For the past two months, most forms of public entertainment have been shuttered, including concert venues, amusement parks, the local sports stadium, and traditional movie theaters. People have been limited to whatever entertainment they can find within their homes or in their own backyard to protect their health. Now, some are looking for any reasonable excuse to get out of the house and break their tedious lockdown routine.
The coronavirus epidemic has changed the world, infecting millions and killing hundreds of thousands globally. Social distancing has become the new normal as people avoid crowded places where the risk of catching Covid-19 is higher. Current guidelines recommend that people stay at least six feet away from each other and gatherings be limited to less than 50 people to minimize the risk of transmission.
Drive-in theaters are uniquely suited for our new normal. People can watch a movie from the safety and comfort of their own vehicle and it is easy for the drive-in to space the vehicles in alternating spots to comply with social distancing guidelines. In many places, drive-in theaters have been the first entertainment venues to receive permission from state governments to reopen.
The drive-in theater has a long and storied history in the United States. The first patented drive-in operation opened in New Jersey in June of 1933. The drive-in, which is basically a parking lot equipped with a giant outdoor movie screen, quickly became a popular place for inexpensive family fun and a date spot for teenagers. By the late 1950s, there were more than 4,100 drive-in theaters located across the nation.
The allure of the drive-in began to wane as entertainment options increased and consumers’ habits changed. The number of operating drive-ins had fallen to less than 200 by 1989. Since then, the industry has seen a small resurgence as a novelty entertainment option, with about 330 drive-in theaters operating today.
The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in some changes in the ways drive-in theaters operate. To comply with social distancing guidelines, most are operating at half-capacity to increase the space between cars and are marking concession lines at six-foot intervals to show guests where to stand. They are also limiting the number of people that can be in the bathrooms at one time and are requiring that guests wear masks while they are outside of their vehicles.
Some drive-ins are requiring that people stay in their vehicles during the movie, while some others will allow lawn chairs directly in front of the vehicle. Nearly all allow guests to bring snacks from home, although some charge a fee to those who do so. Some now allow concession ordering by app or phone, with vendors in protective gear delivering the items to the vehicle. Children’s play areas remain closed.
One of the biggest changes is in the movies that are being shown. Many production studios are holding back their new releases until traditional theaters are able to reopen. This has led to some drive-ins showing feature films that debuted before the pandemic lock-downs began, while others are showing classic films and older offerings.
While most summer activities remain shuttered because of the pandemic, the drive-in has become the option of choice for the moment. It is the closest thing to a proper movie-going experience right now and reports of strong online ticket sales show that people are excited about having an option to go out again. Many in the industry are hopeful that seeing a drive-in movie will become a regular habit for families across the nation and that these guests will continue to come after the pandemic has passed.