Coronavirus Outbreak Leads to Drive-In Theater Renaissance

While only 10% of the country's drive-in theaters are open, those that are have found themselves to be a refuge for families in need of social-distancing fun.

Brian Jackson has always loved the Admiral Twin Drive-In. He and his wife, Barbie, shared their first official date there, and the couple still regularly rolls up to the big screen with their daughter, Bella, to catch a movie.

But a trip to the drive-in has taken on new meaning for the Jackson family amid the worsening coronavirus pandemic. The Jacksons, who live near Tulsa, Oklahoma, are currently practicing social distancing, and the Admiral Twin is one of the few places to find safe entertainment outside of the house. 

"Drive-in movies are America, and they give families the sense of hope and the understanding that everything is going to be okay," Jackson told "When you’re in your own family vehicle, that’s safety, that’s something that makes things normal and you can control your own environment to know you’re going to be safe and you’re going to keep others safe, especially in these times of social distancing."

At least 200 million Americans in 21 states are being urged to stay at home to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which has already sickened more than 86,000 people, according to Johns Hopkins University's Coronavirus Resource Center. 

Across the country, families are flocking to the drive-in theaters that have already opened for the season and haven't been subject to non-essential business closure orders. That's currently about 10% of the 305 drive-in theaters nationwide, according to John Vincent, the president of the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association.

Doug Mercille owns the Starlite Drive-In just outside of St. Louis, Missouri. The drive-in opened March 6, the earliest date it has ever opened, and has seen a fair amount of customers so far. 

"All of a sudden, all the bars are closing, all the restaurants are closing or can only do carry-out, so it’s changed the business dynamics quite a bit," Mercille told "Unless they just come to us and tell us we need to shut down, we feel that we provide a safe environment." 

Mercille said he is taking extra precautions to keep customers safe. Those include extra cleanings, spacing cars farther apart, encouraging customers to use the restroom before they arrive and not allowing kids to play outside their family's cars like they usually do. 

Blake Smith, the owner of the Admiral Twin and the Starlite Drive-In in Wichita, Kansas, has closed his concession stands and is urging families to bring their own snacks and stay in their cars to be safe. But he also says he'll stay open as long as possible 

"It's really more of a community service, in some ways," Smith told "People are going to get cabin fever, and this is a safe way to be entertained and just get out of the house for a little bit." 

He anticipates families will need a distraction from the day's news now more than ever.

"Getting away for just a few minutes and getting into a story, being with your family, it’s a fun experience, and I think it’s an important experience," Smith said. "A good movie can take you away from stress for a couple of hours." 

Since the outbreak, Mercille said he's also been approached by churches about using the theater's FM receivers to broadcast Sunday service, with the possibility of doing a video sunrise mass for Easter Sunday. 

Vincent told that while interest in drive-ins has always been there, he hopes they can fill a void while many indoor theaters are closed. 

"It may be that due to lingering social distancing guidelines, that drive-ins lead the way—and we are happy to—but we all want life to return to normal as quickly as possible, with people doing their favorite things together like going to restaurants, indoor movies, and of course, drive-ins," he said.