99W Drive-in reopening in movie-starved keep-your-distance world
Brian Francis is anxious to get back to showing movies.
His family's 99W Drive-in Theater in Newberg that has been closed for the winter could reopen in late May with weekend films for a limited number of vehicles. That is, if the theater meets several guidelines under statewide COVID-19 restrictions.
Even as he tried to work out ways to reopen, Francis fielded for weeks phone calls, social media requests and emails from all sorts of groups: car clubs, high schools hoping to host drive-in graduation ceremonies, and even a few musicians who wanted to use the theater for performances.
That's not what he wants to do. He wants to show movies.
"It would be so much easier to be open," Francis said. "But I'm not really set up to host events. I don't have a stage. That's one of the reasons we want to open. We just want to show movies."
The problem: His drive-in falls into a gray area under the state's COVID-19 restrictions. It's not a traditional movie theater, which are still closed. It's also not an outdoor recreation area, some of which are reopening with limits.
Reopening the 99W theater requires changes mandated by state, city and county health officials to the usual drive-in experience so people can avoid being exposed to the virus. That likely will mean fewer cars, only one movie a night (no intermission, when people tend to mingle) and setting limits on how people can move around on the drive-in grounds.
"I sure can't wait to open," Francis said. "I've been waiting longer than usual. I haven't been trying to open because of the COVID-19 guidelines."
Francis tentatively hopes to reopen by May 22. He has a green light from local and state officials, and has to work out a solid physical-distancing plan for theater patrons.
The theater hosts its weekly '(Don't) Drive (Stay) In' movie watch party, 7 to 11:30 p.m. Saturdays, with two movies. The virtual party includes social media commentary by viewers.
'A sense of normalcy'
It's usually about this time of year that Francis starts working on reopening the 67-year-old drive-in. During "normal" times, the theater would have opened in April, showing movies only on weekends. Then, as better spring and summer weather settled in, the theater would start running one or two movies each night for most of the week.
Francis' grandfather, J.T. Francis, opened the drive-in in August 1953. It has operated every year since, even after its huge screens were damaged by the October 1962 Columbus Day Storm, and again by a 1990 windstorm.
The 99W Drive-in is one of three traditional drive-in theaters still operating in the state. The other two are in Milton-Freewater and La Grande.
Oregon had about 70 drive-in theaters more than 60 years ago, most in small towns like Newberg, Woodburn, Roseburg, Dallas, Lebanon and Hood River. A few pop-up drive-ins operate today in large parking lots. Portland's Expo Center has hosted its Drive-in Movie Spectacular events on summer weekends. The Dalles' Sunshine Mill Winery opened in April a drive-up movie screen in its parking lot, with movies most Friday and Saturday nights. The winery sells pizza during movies, but doesn't offer bathrooms for moviegoers.
Francis is especially peeved by those pop-up drive-ins. "There's no one waiting to challenge them," he said.
Even more irritating, as Francis tried to work out a possible plan to reopen that satisfied local and state authorities, people hoping to start pop-up drive-ins in other parts of Oregon contacted him for advice on, well, operating an impromptu drive-in theater. One recent email request came from a Florence resident who wanted to "pick his brain" about creating a pop-up drive-in theater in the coastal town.
There are about 300 real drive-ins remaining in the United States. An official with the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association told The Washington Post May 2 that about half of those could reopen by the end of May as states relax stay-at-home orders. Nearly a dozen drive-ins remained open during some states' COVID-19 restrictions.
West Wind Drive-ins reopened its six theaters in late April in California, Nevada and Arizona with restrictions that require people to stay in their vehicles, except when using restrooms. Customers must wear cloth face coverings, and vehicles must be parked 10 feet apart.
M-F Drive-in owner Mike Spiess reopened his 375-vehicle Milton-Freewater theater April 17 after setting requirements for parking vehicles farther apart and enforcing physical distancing rules at the snack bar and restrooms. The La Grande Drive-in expects to reopen Friday, May 15.
"I think we are providing a service," Spiess told the Pendleton East Oregonian April 9. "It does give a sense of normalcy and a degree of safety. It's important for people to have that. There's other drive-in theaters that have already opened up across the country. If we can satisfy the government health guidelines, then we're going to open up."
Limiting number of vehicles
The governor's plan to reopen most of those businesses in phases requires more statewide virus testing and contact tracing, a drop in virus cases and a sufficient supply of protective gear for medical professionals. Businesses also would have to adhere to physical distancing plans to reopen.
Yamhill County health officials signed off on Francis' plan, with a few minor adjustments, after a May 7 walk-through at the Highway 99W site. Local approval came next after offering a few changes, including limiting the number of vehicles and making sure people adhere to physical-distancing requirements. The plan was waved through by the governor's office after Francis came up with a physical-distancing plan for patrons.
"The governor's primary focus is on ensuring the health and safety of Oregonians," said Liz Merah, Brown's press secretary. "While the governor's office is not reviewing individual businesses' plans, under the governor's 'Stay Home, Save Lives' order, our direction to businesses such as drive-in theaters has been that, as long as businesses can implement strict social-distancing measures, such that their continued operation does not contribute to the spread of COVID-19, they may remain open."
Francis began working in early March on a plan to reopen the 99W Drive-in. In several emails between local and state officials, Francis outlined proposals to limit the number of cars at the drive-in, handle admission payments and snack bar sales, and keep people from straying from their vehicles during movies.
The plan limits the number of vehicles allowed in the drive-in, from about 275 to perhaps fewer than 140. It spaces them farther apart and set rules for purchasing snacks and using restrooms. He told local and state officials that the theater still had its original speaker posts, with about 18 feet between posts. If one vehicle parked between posts, that left about eight feet of space between vehicles, he said. That would be room for 142 cars. Francis expects to limit that to 130 cars.
Newberg officials suggested limiting the number of people at each showing to avoid large crowds. If three or four people were in each vehicle, that could mean more than 400 people at a movie showing, prompting the city to worry about monitoring physical-distancing requirements.
Staff would accept credit card payments and maybe some cash, handled with gloves, Francis said. The theater doesn't expect to sell tickets online. Socializing outside of vehicles would be prohibited. The theater's snack bar would take orders and alert customers by text or phone calls that their orders were ready. Francis set up a Cameo Theater art deco counter at the entrance to the drive-in's snack bar as a no-contact pickup station.
Theater restrooms also would have similar physical distancing limits and hourly cleanings, he said. Some restroom stalls would be closed, and people would have to wait at least 6 feet apart before going into the restrooms, Francis said.
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