Drive-In owners worry shutdown will erase Americana experience

SEATTLE – Many small business owners everywhere are wondering how they can survive this unprecedented shutdown.

Governor Jay Inslee has introduced a phased approach to re-opening public gatherings, some industries worry time is running out.

Only five drive-in theaters operate throughout our state, only a fraction have survived since their hay-day decades ago.

Coronavirus may have thrown our economy into chaos drive-in theater owners insist they have been doing social distancing before it became the healthy thing to do.

“It’s time to free the fox,” said Blue Fox Drive-In owner Darrell Bratt.

His family have owned in Oak Harbor outdoor theater since 1988.

“I grew up in Nebraska and my father always took us to the drive-in there,” he said.

“We didn’t call it social distancing at the time,” said Jack Ondracek, owner of a Bremerton icon, the Rodeo Drive-In.

His operating season brought in customers for a few weeks back in March, Inslee’s stay-at-home order forced Ondracek to close early.

“We want to be supportive we don’t want to open up too soon,” he said. “We don’t want to lose any more time than we have to.”

An online petition urging Inslee to reconsider drive-in closures has already gathered more than 60,000 signatures.

The only drive-ins still in operation in our state are in Oak Harbor, Port Townsend, Shelton, Bremerton and Colville.

At one time drive-ins were the main attraction and dozens were constructed in what back-then was the outskirts of town.

But that was then. Tacoma’s Starlight Drive-In was one of many that didn’t survive.

Today, the families left running these throw-backs worry this intermission could be permanent.

“You can look at a Costco or Walmart and see hundreds of cars in their parking lots,” complained Bratt, “But, in an outdoor theater you can’t have a parking lot full of cars.

“It truly is a matter of survival,” Dorothea Mayes, owner of Skyline Drive-In said.

It’s more than a movie, say the owners. Those who love the drive-in experience believe it’s about coming together in ways that can keep coronavirus from spreading.

Social distancing changes at concession stands, and requiring customers to park farther apart could, owners believe make drive-ins uniquely capable of keeping movie-goers safe.

“We’re really built for this,” said Ondracek.

Drive-in owners rely on the spring and summer months to carry finances through the year.

It’s either bankruptcy or closed, either one of the two,” said Bratt.

The potential to lose their business, and our region’s connection to our past, is a curtain call none of these family operators want.

“Social distancing is how we’re fighting this virus, we could do that easily,” said Mayes.

A spokesperson for the Inslee’s office says indoor movie theaters are currently listed in phase-3 of his strategy to re-open our economy.

The spokesperson said it’s possible drive-ins could be shifted to phase 2 but no decision has been made.