Summer at the drive-in during COVID-19

When the pandemic closed indoor theatres on March 17, drive-ins seemed like a ready-made alternative — and across the province, Ontarians are watching movies under the stars
By Shelby Lisk - Published on Aug 08, 2020
Olivia Chiasson and Cale Northey take in a sold-out screening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone at the Drive-In Experience in Nepean on July 4. (Shelby Lisk)

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TVO.org visited drive-in theatres across Ontario to find out how they’re adapting during the COVID-19 pandemic and what the public response has been like since they were allowed to open at the beginning of June. 

You’re driving along winding country roads in a car full of your best friends. The windows are down; you’re blasting the radio. Or you’re at the wheel, and your excited children are in the back seat ready to fall asleep with their teddy bears — though they’re adamant that they can stay up all night. Or you’re 16 years old, you’ve just got your driver’s licence. Your high-school crush is riding shotgun, and there’s nervous energy in the air. You pull into a field surrounded by the golden rays of a summer sunset, park your car in front of the big screen, and tune your radio to the right station, anxiously waiting for the sun to go down so the movie can start.   

two boys in a Jeep
William McLean and Ben Rayner wait for the movie to start at the Mustang Drive-In PEC. The boys, who are now 11 years old, have been friends since pre-school and are sharing their first drive-in experience with each other and their mothers. (Shelby Lisk)

If you grew up in rural Ontario, chances are you remember summer nights at your local drive-in theatre. When COVID-19 closed indoor theatres across the province on March 17, drive-ins seemed like a ready-made alternative, perfect for social distancing. “Everybody kept contacting us on Facebook and email and phoning and saying, ‘Well, you should be able to open because of course we're sitting in the car, and we won't get out,’” says Kevin Marshall, who has owned the Skylight Drive-In in Pembroke with his wife, Kathy, since 2014. “It seemed to me that, under the provincial regulations, a drive-in really was the best and safest way to go, and I figured that the government would get to that point, too.”

a couple sits in a classic car
Kevin and Kathy Marshall, owners of the Skylight Drive-In Pembroke. (Shelby Lisk)

The Skylight Drive-In, which typically opens on Victoria Day weekend, waited until after the government announcement, on May 30, that allowed existing drive-in theatres to reopen. It had its first screening on June 5. When the regulations first came through, the provincial government stated that no patron could leave their vehicle except to use the bathroom or for an emergency. Since then, the rules have changed to allow moviegoers to leave their vehicles to purchase food, so long as they maintain at least two metres of distance from others while waiting to be served and return to their cars immediately afterwards. Drive-ins also have the option to sell and deliver food and beverages directly to vehicles, which must also be spaced at least two metres apart.

The guidelines have caused some confusion among drive-in owners and customers, who want to make sure they’re abiding by the rules and keeping everyone safe. For instance, playgrounds are now open under Stage 3 of the province’s reopening plan, but the rules for drive-ins still state that patrons can leave their car only to purchase food or use the washroom, or for health emergencies. There is no mention of being able to go from your vehicle to the playground and return, so playgrounds at drive-ins, including the one at the Starlight, remain closed. "Typically, on a Friday or Saturday night in July and August, there's 50 kids all running around, on the swing set, the teeter-totters, and the slide. It is a great feeling to see all of that happening and all the interaction with all the different families, seeing all the people getting together and sitting out on their blankets and sitting out on their deck chairs,” says Marshall. “That's a big part of going out [to the drive-in] and that's gone and probably will be for the entire rest of this season.”

cars at a drive-in
On July 23, Macie Gagne, Ride Sullivan, Izzy Sullivan, and Max Moore play on the roof of their car (the playground, including this empty swing set, is currently closed due to COVID-19). Denice Mearns says she remembers going to this drive-in as a child and wanted to share the experience with her children and their friends, who were there to watch Shrek. (Shelby Lisk)

Though some amenities are missing or limited this year, the drive-in still offers a fun and safe way to get out of the house and experience summer during COVID-19. This is exactly why Ottawa event-production company DNA Live decided to launch the Drive-In Experience, on June 24, at Wesley Clover Parks, in Nepean. With summer festivals having been cancelled or postponed, the drive-in offered the perfect structure for physically distanced activities and allowed the company to keep staff employed and support its suppliers (such as concession providers and sign printers).

masked staff stand outside a drive-in
Staff at the Drive-in Experience in Nepean pose for a photo before opening the gates to a long line of waiting cars. Left to right: Danielle Nunes, Lana Pacheco, Alex Primeau, Lorelei Daley, Stephanie Lessard, and Steven Le. (Shelby Lisk)

"It could be very socially demoralizing when everybody is stuck inside for so long,” says Lana Pacheco, director of operations for DNA Live. “The nice weather started to come out as we were leaving spring and easing into summer, and we were worried here that the nice weather would lead people to attend activities or activities that were maybe not as legitimate or as safe." Following COVID-19 health and safety guidelines, and using its expertise in event planning, DNA Live developed a regimented process for keeping staff and customers safe. Staff work in pairs of two or three, are continuously scheduled together to limit exposure to one another, and have designated tools at a workstation. Employees must wear masks when there are patrons on site and when they are within six feet of another person, and either wear gloves or wash hands before and after every task.

a woman near a portable bathroom
Lana Pacheco sanitizes bathroom facilities before patrons arrive at the Drive-In Experience on July 4. (Shelby Lisk)

When patrons arrive on site, security guides them to a 16-by-25-foot parking space. New arrivals are instructed not to leave their vehicles except to use the washroom facilities, and food and drink items are ordered through a website and delivered directly to vehicles. "The one step that's very important, when it comes to visitors, is to make sure that there’s a solid patron education prior to their arrival on site,” Pacheco says. “This, for us, meant making sure that our rules were easy to understand and were properly communicated and received prior to the event.” All rules and information can be found on the website and social media, but customers also receive a reminder email, which outlines rules, on the day of their movie.

man directs traffic outside a drive-in
Patrons are directed as they enter the Drive-in Experience in Nepean on July 4. "People want to be out; they want to have something to do. So, if all they're required to do is to wear a mask, wash your hands, and wait for your turn, we've noticed that people are very, very co-operative," says Lana Pacheco, director of operations at the Drive-In Experience. (Shelby Lisk)
a couple stands in front of a drive-in sign
Dawn Laing, Drew Downs, and their dog, Wilma, pose in front of the Mustang Drive-In PEC. “The feedback we’re getting about our programming has been pretty positive, but we're not selling out completely. We have almost sold out a couple of nights,” Laing says. “We're getting close to capacity, but this is only our fourth week, so people are still learning that we're open.” (Shelby Lisk)

Dawn Laing and Drew Downs are also learning the ropes of drive-in operations during the pandemic. The first-time drive-in owners took possession of the Mustang Drive-In PEC (Prince Edward County) in April and showed their first movie on July 2. Laing, who grew up in Nova Scotia, says they were looking for a change of pace when they stumbled upon the Mustang in Bloomfield. "We drove by the drive-in one day. It was not for sale, but it was just standing there like a beacon," she says. "We just approached the owners and it turns out they were ready to retire, and that's how the story began.

woman talks to a passenger in a car
New co-owner Dawn Laing introduces herself to patrons as they enter the Mustang Drive-in PEC. “I welcome everyone and thank them for coming to the drive-in,” she says. “And when I'm doing this, I have complete gratitude that these people are choosing to leave their home and spend their evening with us, because, if they didn't do that, we would not exist.” (Shelby Lisk)

Between the sale in October and taking possession in April, Laing says, there was a lot of time to daydream about how to renovate and run the drive-in. "We basically took out all of the fixtures and furniture and re-cemented the floors and made a lot of changes to just make the place easier to clean, easier for visibility, and better for flow for the staff to serve people faster," she says. “Then we started focusing on public safety as it relates to COVID — having foot pedals for the sinks and no-touch soap dispensers and stuff like that. We had to really consider the new normal.” They also converted the mostly cash business to debit, credit, and online purchases, lowered capacity from 300 cars to a maximum of 150 cars per night to allow social distancing, and added COVID-related markings and signage.

man leans out of a bus to scan a ticket
Staff member Tim Turiff scans a patron’s ticket on their phone at the Mustang Drive-in PEC. “Part of the reason we don't have everyone in masks, but rather face shields, is because, with hospitality and customer service, you like to see a person smile,”  co-owner Dawn Laing says. “We still adhere to the rules about face covering; we've just opted to do it with something clear so you can still be greeted with a warm smile, even if you're six feet from that person.” (Shelby Lisk)
women and child at a refreshment counter
Patrons wearing masks are served by workers in full face shields at the snack bar at Mustang Drive-In PEC. (Shelby Lisk)

The Mustang Drive-In PEC is open Wednesday to Sunday for movies and is keeping Tuesdays available for private bookings. As everyone scrambles to find venues after COVID-19 closures, it’s had bookings with local ski clubs and companies — it may even host a wedding. Mustang is also partnering with the Regent Theatre in Picton on streaming projects. The Drive-In Experience in Nepean is using its space for comedy shows, yoga, and live entertainment on nights when movies are not playing.

masked woman stands behind a concession stand
Moira Adlan and her husband, Ali, who own Hyland Cinema, an independent movie theatre near London's downtown that screens art-house, international, and classic movies, turned the theatre's gravel parking lot into a 32-spot drive-in complete with a screen on the back of the building. (Mary Baxter)

The Starlite drive-in theatre in Hamilton is one of several facilities owned by Premier Theatres, which also has operations in Barrie, London, Newmarket, and Oakville. Owner Brian Allen purchased it in 2004 and renovated it several years later, adding two more screens, for a total of three. He says drive-ins remind him of the independent movie theatres he used to love. "Every theatre had a different look. They had a general branding, but they had a unique character — so I loved trying different theatres,” he says. “When you go to a multiplex today, they're all the same.”

building at a drive-in movie theatre
The main snack-bar area at the Starlite drive-in is closed to the public; before entering the washroom, patrons need to sanitize their hands. (Justin Chandler)

 Allen says that, although he’s had to limit capacity to allow space between cars, his business has been booming this summer. "I have probably had more publicity on the drive-in movie theatres in the last five months than I had the previous 25 years," he says, adding that older films and even new indie films are selling out. Devon Schumacher, 17, who has worked at the Starlite for four years, notes that spending habits have changed amid the pandemic. "The numbers are definitely down, but people are buying more per car," he says. "I noticed two Saturdays ago, we made $150 per car, which is a lot more than last year."

a deserted snack bar
People line up outside to order food at the Starlite. (Justin Chandler)

While drive-in operators around the province have adapted, one question remains: What will happen when the pandemic is over? “Drive-ins have a difficult time of making a go of it up until the beginning of this year. Now, with COVID, of course drive-ins are taking off in popularity,” says Marshall.

a projector showing a movie at a drive-in
The movie Almost Famous being projected at the Mustang Drive-In PEC on July 25. (Shelby Lisk)

“I think it will carry over for a couple of years, that people will then be nostalgic about this again, you know — a new generation of nostalgia. But will it have a long-term impact?” he wonders. “I don't know if it'll be a long-term growth or this is a really short little bubble that we're seeing.”

With files from Justin Chandler​​​​​​​.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.​​​​​​​


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