The venerable drive-in movie theater — a retro business that nonetheless has social distancing in its DNA — is getting a chance this weekend to start fresh with moviegoers.
On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that drive-in theaters were allowed to reopen statewide on May 15. In the days since drive-in operators have scrambled to prepare for a rush of visitors eager to safely and responsibly take a break from quarantine.
"We're here 24 hours a day trying to work everything out logistically," said John Stefanopoulos, who manages the Four Brothers Drive-in Theater, located near the Connecticut border, and whose family owns the business. "It was a big production getting everything going here."
Projectors needed to be serviced, ice cream machines repaired, lawns trimmed, and websites updated before Friday's reopening brings what's looking like a tide of auto-bound customers.
Stefanopoulos called the response "absolutely out of control." He said the website is seeing thousands of visitors each day and the staff is fielding calls all day with questions about the reopening and most commonly about what measures will be put in place to protect customers.
The biggest precaution is leaving extra room for visitors, even though they'll be separated by glass and steel. The theater is cutting its capacity from 150 cars to about half that. Waiters will also go directly to cars for food orders, and staff will be cleaning bathrooms after every use.
"We don't want to be shut down, and we don't want to overextend ourselves," said Stefanopoulos.
This weekend's tickets are nearly sold-out, he added, and sales will likely end Thursday.
While some hardcore enthusiasts have called on lawmakers to make an exception for drive-ins, given their unique model, many states have kept them closed out of an abundance of caution.
In New York, drive-ins have the distinction of being carved out of the state's phased, regional-based reopening plan for a special state-wide exception for "low-risk” businesses that also included gardening and landscaping.
Like most drive-in theaters, Four Brothers was closed through the winter but opened for a short time in March before the coronavirus led to a state shutdown of nonessential businesses. The loss of revenue was a major hit for the theater, but Stefanopoulos is confident that in the long-run this experience will give drive-in movie theaters a boost.
"Drive-ins are showing themselves off here," he said. "Being able to come together separately is pretty unique. Only a drive-in theater can do that."
Stefanopoulos said he's gotten calls from companies in the music and entertainment industry, as well as schools trying to plan graduations, about using drive-ins for events. He's also gotten calls from other parts of the U.S. and other countries who are interested in starting drive-ins.
"Everyone's trying to get their hands on a drive-in right now," he said.