Empty drive-in theater lot

The Blue Fox Drive-In Theater lot in Oak Harbor looks like this these days.

Imagine this, self-quarantiners: Instead of another night spent simulating life in Animal Crossing or preparing to teach your kid fractions, you could round up your loved ones, hop in your car, and cruise off to catch a flick beneath the stars at one of Western Washington’s four drive-in movie theaters. You would never have to leave your quarantine-mobile (unless you craved a bag of popcorn or needed to use the bathroom) and, in the vehicles dotting the lot around you, you could revel in an ambient sense of community that has remained at well more than arm’s length throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Superficially, a trip to a drive-in movie theater sounds like an activity born from social distancing, not yesteryear. But governor Jay Inslee’s office has yet to give any of Western Washington’s four vintage venues—Rodeo Drive-In in Bremerton, Blue Fox Drive-In in Oak Harbor, Wheel-In Motor Drive-In in Port Townsend, and Skyline Drive-In in Shelton—the go-ahead to open during the state’s phased recovery plan. (Washington state's only other drive-in, Auto-Vue in Colville, has also argued for its return.) Mike Faulk, Inslee’s deputy director of communications, says that it’s “possible” drive-ins will be allowed to return in phase two, which is at least a couple weeks out in the most populous Washington counties. Indoor theaters can’t reopen until phase three. “No decision has been made,” Faulk wrote in an email.

But Washington's vintage theaters don't have time to wait. Traditionally seasonal, drive-ins make their money once warmer weather sets in, as it already has around the state. Each passing week of mandatory closure jeopardizes the future of these vestiges of 20th-century Americana. “The bottom line is if we do not get to reopen soon, we will be forced to close. We had a terrible winter and now being forced to close during our busiest time of year is catastrophic,” the Blue Fox announced on its Facebook page last week. In that same post, the Whidbey Island theater launched a change.org petition to reopen that quickly topped 50,000 signatures. Other theaters have pointed to that petition and encouraged supporters to contact local and state government officials.

For Darrell Bratt, who has owned the Blue Fox more than three decades (the theater itself has been around for another three), the lack of clarity on why certain businesses can open and others cannot is frustrating. "When you're standing in line at a snack bar, as long as you're social distancing, like everybody wants to, and staying six feet apart, why is that different than a Costco or a Safeway?" he told me earlier this week.

May, June, and July are definitely the theater's most happening, and thus, most critical, months. "You have to make money in the summertime and stock it away for the wintertime," says Bratt.

Cheryl Ondracek, who helps run the family-owned Rodeo Drive-in, mentioned that drive-ins originally received an exemption to remain open before the "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" order came down. Like other theaters, Rodeo has presented a variety of measures—stickers, line barriers, online ordering, touch-less bathroom facilities—to help make the drive-in experience an even more socially distant one. But it hasn't heard back yet. "We are no different," Ondracek says, "than any other business that's allowed to operate that has a cashier."

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