Coronavirus: Drive-in theaters are ‘best place for a quarantine date’

Coronavirus: Drive-in theaters are ‘best place for a quarantine date’
Drive-in theaters are becoming popular again as entertainment options dwindle. (Dan Steinberg/Getty Images)

BREMERTON, Wash. — The line of cars clamoring to get into Bremerton’s Rodeo Drive-In Theater in Washington state Friday night stretched all the way out to State Route 3, and that was an hour before showtime.

It turned into the biggest crowd this 1949-era theater had seen in recent memory this early in the season. But in its 71-year history, the theater has never before been the only public entertainment venue open during a pandemic.

“I said ‘Oh man, everybody had the same idea we did,’” Nick Davis, who played catch with his son in the theater’s front row, told KIRO-TV.

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Two rows away, Rachael Ellison prepared blankets and an air mattress for her daughters. “It’s so great that we have something to do during this time, just to give us a little bit of sanity,” Ellison told the television station.

The theater -- one of only five drive-ins left in Washington state -- are the only places Gov. Jay Inslee has not deemed unsafe, and ordered closed, to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

“The fun part of this place is watching the families come out, giving them an option,” said Jack Ondracek, who with his daughter, Cheryl Ondracek, has been running this family business for generations.

In an unprecedented time, when indoor theaters are closed and people are keeping their distance, Ali Thurman was impressed, and a little disturbed by the turnout.

“They tell us to hunker down at home, but if you’re going to be out, this is about as safe as you can get,” Thurman told KIRO. “These kids have been trapped in the house all week long with their parents.”

Drive-in theaters used to dot the local landscape, from Bellingham to Battle Ground. Now, there are estimated to be fewer than 300 still operating in the U.S.

At showtime in the three-screen complex, the smell of popcorn blew in the cool air, and under clear skies, people were grateful to have a place to go to gather, to feel normal again.

"That’s what we’ve seen on Facebook, Cheryl Ondracek said. “We have comments all over the place about how thankful they are that we’re able to stay open.”

In a shelter-in-place world where Netflix binging can grow tiresome, there was a sense that the outdoor theater was the only place to get out for a “quarantine date.”

Jack Ondracek says he hopes the governor will keep the business open. “It’s still a family experience and we’re really glad to be able to still be here to share it,” he said.