Storefronts may be shuttered, offices hushed and sidewalks sparsely treaded amid a looming pandemic. But one unlikely beacon is shining a little brighter these days.
That would be the drive-in movie theater.
Indeed, after years of steadily retreating from the American landscape, these iconic venues may have found the spotlight again.
As the Los Angeles Times reports, ticket sales at venues from California to Kansas to Oklahoma have surged in recent days, with gate receipts doubling at some theaters.
"It has been a welcome relief for families and adults looking for a little getaway from the house," Beau Bianchi, whose family own several theaters in California, tells the Times. "We've been trying to let people know that we have a safe environment and [offer] a little escape."
For an industry that seemed to have been on its last legs for decades — drive-in theaters have dwindled from 4,000 in the 1950s to around 325 today — it may not exactly be a Hollywood ending. After all, when it comes to civilization, the show must go on. Humans will eventually emerge from their homes — and soak up the concerts and sporting events and festivals that have been cancelled in light of the pandemic.
The drive-in may be having a moment, but all the public distractions that have been nibbling at the industry will eventually return.
In the meantime, these theaters offer a tempting proposition for people who may be feeling lockdown fatigue. Over the last week, millions of Americans have been told to stay home. School and business closures may exacerbate that growing sense of cabin fever.
It may even get worse as the likelihood of a nationwide lockdown looms.
But ever since the first drive-in theater opened in Camden, New Jersey back in 1933, these venues have lured Americans to the unlikely escape of a wide-open parking lot, the air punctuated only by a projector light.
Especially arriving on the heels of the Great Depression, who could resist a sky-high screen, doling out back-to-back feature films — only interrupted by a cartoon hot dog who tries to convince you to visit the concessions stand?
For today's quarantine crowd, the drive-in may offer an even sweeter proposition. But not without caveats unique to these times.
The drive-in theater occupies murky ground in the big picture that is social distancing. Technically, it may run afoul of those health guidelines, designed to slow the spread of the virus. After all, drive-ins could qualify as gatherings of 50 or more people. And, as SlashFilm reports, some drive-in operators seem to agree — temporarily shuttering their venues during these viral times.
Other operators are staying open, but implementing measures to keep human interaction to a minimum.
"I don't think we fit into the gathering category personally because all the gathering places are places where you are confined with a bunch of people," Doug Mercille, owner of Montana's Starlite Drive-In in Cadet, Missouri, tells the LA Times.
Indeed, these are venues where cars gather — cars that happen to contain humans. And certainly, visitors, aside from their passengers, are maintaining a six-foot radius.
Just try to tune out the talking hot dog — and skip the concessions stand.