Drive-in theaters
Customers wait for “Back to the Future” to start after the sun sets at the Chief Drive-In in Ninnekah. Gov. Stitt expanded non-essential business closures to all 77 Oklahoma counties, which will affect drive-in theaters. (Conner Caughlin / Gaylord News)

NINNEKAH — As the COVID-19 outbreak worsens in the United States, some Oklahoma drive-in theaters want to keep their doors open to cure cabin fever.

Drive-ins across Oklahoma were open until Gov. Kevin Stitt expanded his “safer-at-home policy to all 77 Oklahoma counties on Wednesday. As a result, businesses not deemed “essential” must close until April 30. That includes drive-in theaters.

Tulsa’s Admiral Twin Drive-In had been open only since March 6. Blake Smith, owner of the Admiral Twin, closed the concession stand and allowed customers to bring outside snacks to limit human contact. He had been able to convince the city to allow his drive-in to stay open in March to provide an escape from home.

Gaylord NewsThis story was reported by Gaylord News, a Washington reporting project of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.

“All we’re trying to do is be there for those folks who just are like, ‘I just need to get out of the house for a couple hours,’” Smith said. “I brought up this argument with the city and the mayor’s office. If they’re going to allow fast food restaurants to have their drive-thrus open, then my business shouldn’t be any different. (…) All we’re doing is giving them a ticket.”

The Admiral Twin closed to abide by the state policy, but Smith says he is working to reopen as soon as he can.

Ninnekah’s Chief Drive-In, just outside Chickasha, took extra precautions in March as COVID-19 became a reality in Oklahoma. According to the drive-in theater’s website, customers needed to park their cars at least one space apart from each other and call the concession stand to place orders. When food was ready, they could pick it up from a gloved worker standing behind a sneeze shield.

‘It’s still something to get out and do’

Before Chief Drive-In closed, University of Oklahoma students Anna Mullen and Alex Quinn sat in the bed of a pickup truck at the back of the parking lot.

“I feel like since it’s a drive-in, there’s already plenty of space,” said Mullen. “Besides, it’s nicer than a regular movie theater. There’s fresh air.”

Since drive-in theaters offer a unique form of separated community, some religious organizations have asked to use the drive-in facilities to conduct their sermons. Nathan Flaherty, owner of Shattuck’s EL-CO Drive-In, said he was happy to offer the theater to the groups for free if they needed it.

“We’ve had three people contact me about having sermons, but I told them it needs to be dark to see the screen,” said Flaherty. “They would have to start after the sun sets around 8:30, but if they still want to do it, there’s no additional cost on my end.”

Before the drive-ins were closed, customers were grateful for the opportunity to enjoy a treasured part of American culture.

“It’s still something to get out and do,” Quinn said.

Unless the governor extends his policy, some drive-ins plan to open again May 1 with the same sanitary procedures. Thursday, Stitt urged Oklahomans to stay home through April 30.

“We really have to take this seriously over the next month,” Stitt said.