Tiger, Georgia, calls itself a “sleepy” town. So when the owners of the Tiger Drive-In movie theater posted that it was open on Facebook this month, they expected only their devoted customers among the roughly 2,000 living in the town would notice.
The post reached more than a quarter of a million people.
“I was up all night responding to comments,” owner Tom Major said of the 421 messages he answered. “People are just going crazy. We are sold out, turning people away.”
With much of the U.S. economy shuttered and people forced to remain with family in confined spaces, they are finding that the drive-in movie theater presents the perfect out.
The coronavirus has forced traditional movie theater chains to close their doors. That could be a recipe for a resurgence of drive-ins — a slice of Americana that had its heyday in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Tiger Drive-In is more popular than ever, though that’s not the case for other drive-ins nationwide.
Generally, Tiger’s customer base is drawn from within 100 miles of the drive-in. Mr. Major said he now sees cars arriving from as far as 140 miles away.
But that doesn’t mean bulging cash registers, Mr. Major acknowledged. For the past three weeks, he said, they have been allowing only 70 cars to enter, though the Tiger Drive-In can play to a capacity of 220 cars.
Even in the parking lots, social distancing rules apply.
The rules imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19 also force scores of drive-ins to remain dark.
The U.S. has 305 drive-in locations operating, according to the most recent statistics from the United Drive-In Theatre Owners Association. New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana have the most.
At the moment, most of the nation’s drive-ins are closed, and several in those states have announced delayed openings.
Roughly 95% of the nation’s drive-ins open their seasons in April but this year only 30, or 10%, of them are illuminated, said John Vincent, president of the drive-in group and proprietor of the Wellfleet Drive-In on Cape Cod.
“The governors still have to iron out some concerns, but we anticipate most of us will be open by the end of next month,” he said.
The Parma Motor-Vu in Idaho, operating since 1953, are open but have “limited snack bar options” and restrooms serving only one patron at a time.
“We’re seeing a patchwork of places where they are allowed to open,” Mr. Vincent said.
In Mansfield, Connecticut, the drive-in and flea market weekends would have started a month ago if the state hadn’t been in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We have an awesome customer base and we had about 2,800 people sign a petition in favor of us opening, but we decided to remain closed for now,” said Naomi Jungden, whose family has run the theater there since 1974. “I sure hope we can open relatively soon because we draw from a lot of states and people really travel to get here.”
On crisp spring nights like Mansfield has had this week, the drive-in’s three screens can take in 930 cars a night, but with Connecticut limiting gatherings to no more than five people, such a jolly scene is verboten.
The health of those inside the cars isn’t the only factor.
At the 112 Drive-In in Fayetteville, Arkansas, most of the dozen workers are in high-risk groups, such as older people and people with diabetes. That made it impossible for the owner to open as planned in April.
“We can get by if we’re not open, but if even one of us gets sick, we’re screwed,” said technician Anthony Bowling.
He has worked at the 112 Drive-In for 32 years, one year less than his wife. Other Bowling family members also are on the staff.
It is largely out of respect for her long-term staff that the owner has kept her screen dark, Mr. Bowling said.
“The theater really doesn’t make lots and lots of money,” he said, pointing to the concession stand as the real profit center. “For us to make a profit, we’d be too crowded. We always have lines outside the restrooms, and do you think kids are going to stay in the car when they see their friends a couple of cars over?”
Many drive-in operators also will need to upgrade their food and beverage services to meet health requirements during the coronavirus crisis.
As Ms. Jungden’s and the Bowling stories make clear, the drive-in tends to be a business of affection as much as profit. The screens often have been in families for decades, and the owners see themselves as a part of the community’s fabric in ways other businesses might not.
Mr. Major’s father-in-law ran the Tiger Drive-In for 30 years until he retired in 1984. Mr. Major bought the place and reopened it at his wife’s urging in 2004.
Today, the drive-in and its TDI Grill employ about a half-dozen people.