Is it safe to go to a drive-in movie?

is it safe to go to a drive-in movie theater
Photo via Discover Lehigh Valley, PA/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

When the coronavirus pandemic first broke out in mid-March, movie theaters across the United States quickly shut down. And although some states and counties that have entered the green phase are tentatively beginning to allow movie theaters to reopen their doors—most, if not all, with the contingency of mask-wearing and social distancing—it goes without saying that most medical experts would continue to advise against going out to the movies. But is it safe to go to a drive-in theater? 

These outdoor theaters, which reached height popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, allow you to watch a movie on a large screen from the comfort of your own car, using your car stereo’s radio frequency or an external speaker.

Though there are currently only about 300-330 drive-in movie theaters operating in the United States today (compared to a peak of about 4,000 in the late ‘50s), the concept is being resurrected in the age of COVID-19 as a way to enjoy a night out at the movies while still adhering to CDC recommended social distancing guidelines.

Jim Kopp, who owns the Family Drive-in Theater in Stephens City, Virginia, told CNBC in May that he was “surprised” at the crowds that began to come out to his establishment in the midst of the pandemic. “There are a lot of folks anxious to go out and be safe and get some movie entertainment,” he said.

His theater is not the only one. Mom and pop drive-ins throughout the country have seen a huge demand in recent months, and like many others, Kopp is hoping that the trend continues even after the threat of the virus is mitigated.

To make the outdoor theater-going experience as safe as he can for guests, Kopp is taking basic preventative measures such as spacing cars 10 feet apart as opposed to side-by-side, limiting one speaker per car instead of a speaker being shared by two or more cars, transitioning all ticketing and concession orders to contactless online or app sales, and regularly and thoroughly sanitizing restrooms.

Though the latter has caused long lines, particularly in the ladies’ room, Kopp says that customers seem to be taking the changes in stride. “They are happy that it is sanitized in between use,” he said. “We are really happy that the crowds are coming out.”

Tips for a safe drive-in theater experience

In addition to changes being made to drive-in movie theater proprietors, there are also some basic preventive measures that you can take to make your visit to an outdoor movie theater as safe as possible.

  • Don’t forget your mask and hand sanitizer. This is especially important if you plan to leave your car, whether it be to visit the concession stand, to go to the restroom, or to even bring lawn chairs to sit outside of your vehicle.
  • Bring snacks (and garbage receptacles) from home. An even better plan is to avoid the concession stand altogether by enjoying the snacks you bring along with you. By carrying your own garbage bags, you’ll avoid having to come in contact with potentially germ-covered onsite trash receptacles.
  • Try to limit bathroom trips. We know this is a tough one, especially when it comes to some of those Marvel flicks with those two-plus hour running times. If you need to use the bathroom, make sure to mask up and wash your hands thoroughly after using the restroom.
  • Keep kids distracted. It used to be commonplace for children to run around and play prior to the start of the feature. Beth Virnig, a University of Minnesota professor of public health who specializes in epidemiology, suggests “board games or other forms of entertainment to keep your kids occupied without interacting with other kids.”

Dr. Robert Lahita, who serves as chairman of St. Joseph’s Healthcare System’s Department of Medicine in New Jersey, told Vulture that going to see a movie at a drive-in theater is “perfectly safe, provided you do not leave your car.”

“You would have to stock your car with food and drink. And you would have to leave the car to go to the bathroom, which of course exposes you to risk,” Lahita warned. “In the summer you would have to leave the windows down, or keep the engine running for air conditioning. With windows down, your neighbor could infect you, although that’s unlikely.”

Where to find an outdoor movie theater

In addition to resources such as DriveInMovie.com and The United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association (UDITOA), many cities are hosting pop-up drive-in movies. For example, Los Angeles Magazine has a complete listing of summer drive-in pop-ups that can be found throughout the city.

Walmart, in a partnership with Tribeca Enterprises, is also transforming 160 store parking lots across the country into contact-free drive-in movie theaters beginning in early August and running through October.

In a press release, the retail chain says that it will be encouraging families to order their drive-in essentials online for curbside pickup ahead of these screenings. “This family-friendly night will include hit movies, special appearances from filmmakers and celebrities, and concessions delivered right to customer vehicles,” the statement said. For more information on locations and screenings, you can visit the Walmart Drive-in website here.

At this point, the future of the movie theater experience is unclear. So, for now, it probably makes more sense to watch them from your car.

Is it safe:

Sources: CNBC, USA Today, Vulture

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