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What effect will the Coronavirus have on drive-ins?

by Released : 2020-03-18

Packed Drive-in Theater

With people falling ill and some dying, businesses closing and potentially millions of people losing their jobs due to the spread of the Coronavirus, one might ask why we are writing about the effects of the Coronavirus on drive-in theaters.  Well, the answer is simple - we are a website dedicated to reporting on drive-in theaters and so that is what we are going to focus on.

First a quick summary for those unfamiliar with the state of the drive-in theater industry.  The number of drive-in theaters peaked back in the 1950’s.  At that time, there were more than 4000 drive-in theaters across the United States.  Since then, their numbers have declined dramatically and there are currently only about 320 drive-ins left in the United States with the numbers declining every year.  There are also currently about 40 drive-ins in Canada, about 16 in Australia and a handful of others spread throughout the rest of the world.  For a more thorough history of drive-ins, click here.  For an interactive map of all remaining drive-ins, click here.

As we see it, there are three probable outcomes on how the Coronavirus will affect our remaining drive-ins.  Each is discussed below.

Business as Usual for Drive-ins

The first outcome we can foresee is that the Coronavirus will pass quickly, life will get back to normal within the next 4 weeks, and drive-ins will continue to operate as normal with no lasting effects.  

With the rapidly changing environment though, we see this as the least probably outcome as each day brings more news of forced business closings, lockdowns and other preventive measures.  With every news conference, our elected leaders keep pushing out the timeline for how long we should expect this crisis to last.  Currently, we are hearing anywhere from a month to 18 months.  At this point, I do not think anyone expects life to get back to normal any time soon which leads us to our next potential outcome for drive-ins.

Accelerated Closing of Drive-in Theaters

Over the last several years, on average, we have seen the number of open drive-ins decline by between 3-4 drive-ins per year.  Actually, more drive-ins than that have closed each year, but the overall decline has been offset by new drive-ins opening.  The last 5 years, the acceleration of the number of drive-ins that were permanently closing had significantly slowed and steadied. 

Depending on their geographic location, most drive-ins are seasonal and only operate for a handful of months per year.  Drive-in season for many of the seasonal drive-ins starts in mid-March, really starts to pickup in May and peaks in July and then declines until it ends in September or October.  So this virus is hitting right when the drive-in season would begin and if it last until mid-summer as many are now projecting, it will run through what is our drive-ins most important time of the year.  This is important because most states are now closing all restaurants, bars and now entertainment venues.  If this includes drive-ins and they are forced to close, many drive-ins will miss an entire year of operation. 

In many cases, drive-ins are not extremely profitable businesses and many are run at near breakeven simply because the owners love them and the service they provide to their local communities.   The last two years have already been very hard on many drive-ins with extremely poor and rainy weather and some drive-ins permanently closed last year because they could not make enough money to stay open.  If the Coronavirus does force the closure of our drive-ins and they miss an entire season, we predict that many will never open again and we will see a very large number of drive-ins go dark permanently.

This is the worst-case scenario.  But there is another scenario which we think has a possibility of happening.

A Renewal of the Drive-in Industry

Our most hopeful outlook is that there is a possibility of the popularity of drive-ins actually increasing.  Drive-ins are one of those entertainment venues where you can keep social distancing between the patrons.  Unlike a movie theater where patrons are sitting inches from one another, at a drive-in you can stay in your car away from others.  Or you can easily sit outside of your vehicle and still maintain a large distance from other visitors.  As an example, we are located in Kentucky and our governor just recently mandated that all movie theaters and other entertainment venues close.  However, our local drive-in put in place several new procedures to reduce the risk of the spread of the Coronavirus and for now, they are being allowed to operate.  We have read about several other drive-ins that are still operating as well while other businesses are forced to close. 

Some drive-ins are now requiring things such as spaces between cars to increase distancing.  They are also changing concession operations to avoid crowds of people.  Some are selling tickets online to reduce interaction between patrons arriving and the staff.  So far, these measures seem to be gaining approval from local governments. 

And with many schools out for the foreseeable future, drive-ins can expect large crowds throughout the week and not just on the weekend.  In the last week, we have seen traffic on our website jump by almost 50% as people are looking to drive-ins as a potential entertainment option with everything else being shut down.  And hopefully if drive-in attendance increases during this time, many people who have never been to drive-ins will be introduced to them and they will fall in love with them which will help drive future business. 

There are of course challenges to this as we are reading there are already drive-ins that are being forced to close.  If things get worse, those drive-ins allowed to operate now may not be allowed to operate going forward.  But we like to be optimistic and see the good in the bad and hope this crisis might re-introduce the magic experience of visiting drive-in theaters to the public and hopefully help spur a revival of the drive-in movie.

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