Drive-in theaters provide 'nostalgic connection' during coronavirus pandemic

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ATLANTA - Thousands of people across the country are staying home to stop the spread of the coronavirus -- but an old-school activity is making a comeback.

Drive-in movie theaters nationwide have become a nostalgic way for families to pass the time while social distancing guidelines are in place.

The Starlight Drive-in theater in Atlanta was forced to closed in March when the coronavirus hit home. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the Atlanta drive-in reopened last week, and residents are packing the theater -- all in the comfort, and safety, of their vehicle.

In Atlanta the Starlight Drive-in sign is lit up every night as guest file in to see a movie, and escape the pandemic. (Jayla Whitfield / Fox News)

In Atlanta the Starlight Drive-in sign is lit up every night as guest file in to see a movie, and escape the pandemic. (Jayla Whitfield / Fox News)

Atlanta resident, Afiya Hughes and her husband recently visited the Atlanta drive-in and she says it’s a nice way to see other people.

“Everybody was there, it was crowded, it was a packed house. Even though I didn’t speak to anyone directly or anything like that, I still felt connected to the people at the drive-in, because we all needed to get out, we all needed a reprieve,” Hughes said.

According to the United drive-in theatre owners association, there are over 300 drive-in theaters across the country and the revival of drive-in movie theaters is spiking nationwide.

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One Florida drive-in never closed its doors when the coronavirus hit the United States. John Watzke owns the Ocala drive-in and he says staying open is about more than just the money.

The Ocala drive in usually has a packed crowd every weekend, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (John Watzke)

The Ocala drive in usually has a packed crowd every weekend, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (John Watzke)

“It goes back to Hurricane Katrina, I was a victim of Katrina on the Mississippi coast and anything that brought what seemed to be a normal life to us is the thing that we remember the most,” Watzke said.

Watzke hopes to provide a small piece of normalcy for his customers. In order to stay open, he is taking precautions by cutting the vehicle capacity up to 50 percent.

“I fenced off every other parking space here, so they have anywhere between 10 to 12 feet between them and the next vehicle,” Watzke said.

Watzke fenced off every other parking space to abide by social distancing guidelines and keep his customers safe. (Jake Borneman)

Watzke fenced off every other parking space to abide by social distancing guidelines and keep his customers safe. (Jake Borneman)

Watzke says that business is booming.

“We’re selling out, we’re seeing a lot of people coming from a long distance,” he said.

But some drive-ins are facing financial setbacks.

Dwight Grimm owns a drive-in theatre in Greenville, N.Y. Grimm’s theatre usually opens in May, but the owners are already planning ahead for the impact of the coronavirus.

The proud owners of the Greenville Drive-in outdoor cinema in Grenville, New York. (Dwight Grimm)

The proud owners of the Greenville Drive-in outdoor cinema in Grenville, New York. (Dwight Grimm)

“We are now switching from general admission to assigned seating and once we have assigned seating, you’ll be able to text from your car… I want popcorn, I want hot dog, and we will run it out to your car,” Grimm said.

According to drive-in owners, most of the ticket money for movies goes directly to movie studios and concession sales are key for their survival.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a drive-in or a regular hard-top theater, you need to be able to sell popcorn, candy, and all that sort of stuff otherwise we won’t be able to stay in business,” Grimm said.

In Florida, the Ocala drive-in is finding ways to continue to provide food safely to their customers.

“We initiated a delivery service -- they deliver straight to the vehicle. They go onto my website and place their order and my concession personnel all wear gloves, masks, everything,” Watzke said.

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Drive-in theaters say they are working around the clock to provide a safe place to go during an unprecedented time.

“I think people are looking for this sort of nostalgic connections and you can’t get more of a nostalgic connection than at the drive-in,” Grimm said.

The owners of drive-in theaters that remain open say they have seen an increase of traffic and, with the new rules of social distancing, they believe drive-ins may be a big part of the future.

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“I hope people realize that no matter what the disaster is, that drive-ins are safe... you’re in your vehicle,” Watzke said.