Drive-in theaters, exempt from gathering ban, offer family outings during social distancing

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — In this time of social distancing due to the new coronavirus, two Central Texas business owners think they have the solution for couples and families trying to get out of the house safely.

“Our whole business model is about giving people space,” said Josh Frank, owner of Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In. He opened the small theater space in east Austin a decade ago, and just opened a second location in Round Rock three weeks ago.

Each car is considered its own separate space, a city of Austin spokesperson said, so the 10-person limit on gatherings does not apply to drive-in theaters. As movie theaters across the country close to fight the spread of COVID-19, Frank said this is an opportunity to enjoy a movie in public, in private.

“It’s mostly couples just thrilled to be able to get out and have a date night,” he said. “But also some families that are just stuffing everybody in, pulling up, watching the hour-and-40-minute movie or whatever and then pulling out, and they can say, ‘Oh, we got out.'”

He’s also using his social-distancing-proof business model to support filmmakers who had their South by Southwest premieres canceled. Moviegoers have one more chance to see six short films that were going to debut at the festival; Frank will show them Sunday at the Austin theater, the third run for the set of shorts.

“This was going to be their chance to show their movie in Austin and to get some attention,” he said.

blue starlite drive in
Cars wait for a movie to start at Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In. (Image Courtesy: Josh Frank)

‘The perfect scenario for social distancing’

Communities across the world are practicing social distancing to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. The idea is to limit close interactions with other people, especially in public spaces.

COVID-19 spreads through droplets (such as when someone coughs or sneezes) and can survive on surfaces, so the less people are sharing space with one another, doctors say, the lower the chances the virus will spread quickly.

“I feel like this is a difficult time for everybody,” said Sarah Denny, co-owner of Doc’s Drive In Theatre in Buda, which opened in October 2018. She and her husband, Chris, are still showing movies, too, and they hope it provides an outlet for families who’ve been cooped up for days.

“We’ve created what we think is the perfect scenario for social distancing,” Chris Denny said.

They’re not taking any chances. Doc’s cut the number of cars allowed in each night to give guests more peace of mind, and they implemented an app-ordering system for food to eliminate lines. Staff members can even scan tickets purchased online through a car window, so there’s no need to physically interact with anyone.

The couple also got rid of games in the public areas of the drive-in and are limiting the restrooms to emergencies only. They’ll clean the bathroom after every person who has to use it.

“It’s been a huge challenge to try to figure all this out,” Chris Denny said, “but, you know, I’m really happy that we have the opportunity” when many small businesses are closing and laying off employees.

He believes families will be happy for the opportunity, too. Social distancing can lead to isolation, health experts warn, which can induce or worsen depression and other mental health issues. “You need to be able to get out and do something,” Denny said.

A new application for old technology

Drive-in theaters are a shrinking sector of the film industry. The first venues opened in the early 1900s, and there were more than 4,000 of them across the nation by 1958, according to the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.

Now, the trade group counts just 305 drive-ins in the U.S. Twelve of those are in Texas.

It’s “profound,” Frank said, that this old technology has found an ideal application in the modern era. “You really can sort of create as much comfortable space as you need.”

His drive-ins are adjusting operations, too, requiring gloves to check people in, bringing refreshments to the car instead of using the pick-up window, cleaning restrooms hourly and eliminating the walk-in option to see movies. Blue Starlite is cutting the number of cars allowed into both locations, too.

“There’s no point in going out if you’re nervous or if you’re going to be uncomfortable,” Frank said.

Both drive-ins believe they’ve found the right balance to make people comfortable going out, while also practicing social distancing.

“It’s a place where families can come together and just enjoy their time, forget about what’s going on, social distance, and just try to have a good night,” Sarah Denny said.

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