April 22, 2020
By Jennifer Tiedemann

Right now, going out to see a movie might seem like the stuff of fantasies. But it’s not as much of a pipedream as you might think. In fact, it might be one of the ways we start to get our cultural life back as we work our way out of the COVID-19 pandemic—as long as we stay in our cars to do it.

At a time when indoor movie theater chains are shuttered (and in some cases, facing the prospect of bankruptcy), drive-in theaters may be a possible option for a movie-starved public. (Indeed, the New York Post said this week that drive-ins may be “poised for a comeback” during the coronavirus outbreak.)

Their heyday might be in the long-distant past—there are only about 320 drive-ins still around nationwide, down from a height of more than 4,000 in the late 1950s—but in a time of COVID-19, going to a drive-in movie is one of the few activities outside the home that fits the definition of “social distancing.” After all, patrons stay in their own vehicles, with more than six feet of space between them and other attendees. South Korea and Germany are among the countries that have embraced drive-ins during the pandemic, with both countries seeing something of a boom in business at these outdoor theaters. And now, America may be next.

As of April 6, just 13 of America’s drive-in theaters were open for business, but as the weather gets warmer in many parts of the country, it’s possible that more may join that list. New York, for example, is home to 58 drive-in theaters, all of which are currently closed because they aren’t considered non-essential businesses. But when asked about it at an Easter Sunday press conference, Governor Andrew Cuomo indicated that there might be some flexibility: “Empire State Development is making these decisions and they’re all tricky decisions by the way…I’m going to talk the ESD about it.” And some of New York’s drive-ins are turning up the heat on state government: Two of them, the Four Brothers Drive-In in Amenia and the Warwick Drive-In in Warwick, have requested waivers from the non-essential categorization.

It remains to be seen whether these requests will be granted, but it’s clear that as the country considers small steps to restarting the country’s economic engine, drive-ins are a smart place to begin. As businesses go, it’s easy to control the level of human interaction. A drive-in in Cologne, Germany (which, by the way, is currently “booked solid,” reports the Post article) is currently allowing 250 cars per showing in its 1,000-car capacity lot to maintain social distancing, and tickets are scanned through closed windows by a glove-wearing employee. That’s less contact than what you get pulling up to a drive-thru window at a fast-food restaurant.

While the vast majority of new movie business during the COVID-19 outbreak has been through on-demand viewing, watching a movie on your couch can’t replace seeing it at a theater. And it’s clear that quarantined Americans are craving shared experiences (Disney singalong, anyone?). Drive-ins may offer one of the only real communal moviegoing experiences Americans can have for the foreseeable future—the only opportunity to see a movie on the big screen with a few hundred of your closest friends (as long as you keep at least six feet of distance between you, of course).

Reopening the country can’t and won’t be an all-or-nothing situation—it must be gradual and phased. But it also has to start somewhere—even for those states experiencing the worst of the outbreak. Hollywood Reporter journalist Scott Roxborough wrote of his own recent trip to a drive-in: “[W]hen the sun goes down and the movie starts, it feels like a regular night out—something we haven’t had in a long time.” These days, even small returns to normalcy—the feel of a “regular night out”—would be important signals that the country is on the road to recovery from COVID-19. And drive-ins may help take us there.

Jennifer Tiedemann is the Deputy Director of Communications at the Goldwater Institute.

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