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Drive-in theatres ready and waiting to start the show

Drive-in movie theatre operators across eastern Ontario are biding their time as they await news from the provincial government on when they can reopen — and what public health rules they must follow.

Online tickets, plexiglass separators, crowd control will be the new normal

The sign of the Port Elmsley Drive-In near Perth, Ont., which usually details what movies will be playing that day, reads "soon" on May 24. (Julie Ireton/CBC News)

Drive-in movie theatre operators across eastern Ontario are biding their time as they await news from the provincial government on when they can reopen — and what public health rules they must follow.

Outdoor movie theatres are not on Ontario's list of essential businesses and haven't been given the green light to open during phase one of the province's reopening plan, even though drive-in religious ceremonies are allowed and drive-ins have been authorized to open in several other provinces.

That hasn't stopped Kevin Marshall, owner of the Skylight Drive-In in Pembroke, Ont., from planning outdoor movie watching in the age of coronavirus. 

"We are getting ready and we're trying to anticipate what [the provincial government] is going to ask us to do," said Marshall.

Marshall is developing protocols and plans for his theatre that will allow people to maintain physical distancing and limit interactions between customers and staff as much as possible, he said. 

Online tickets, plexiglass shields, enhanced cleaning

Once allowed to reopen, Skylight customers will order their movie tickets online, plexiglass shields will separate snack bar staff from customers and attendants will clean bathrooms after each use.

Marshall said the biggest challenge will be making sure people stay two metres apart.

"It's going to be very difficult to police people to stop them from getting out of their cars and sitting in lawn chairs and visiting with neighbours," said Marshall. 

The Skylight Drive-In in Pembroke, Ont., stands empty as its owner, Kevin Marshall, awaits the go-ahead to reopen. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC News)

Marshall said he plans to hire more staff to join the four people who usually work at his drive-in during the summer months.

There was a trial run, of sorts, at the Skylight this weekend. On Sunday morning, parishioners of the Wesley Community Church drove up to the drive-in in Pembroke — not to buy popcorn or to watch the latest Avengers flick — but to hear a sermon. Religious ceremonies were granted an exemption last week from the ban on public gatherings.

Further south at the Port Elmsley Drive-In, located between Perth and Smiths Falls, Ont., owner Dave Bird said he is making similar preparations. 

"We've been doing a lot of work on altering the way we can serve people," he said.

Bird said he transformed the drive-in's snack bar — which since 1953 has operated as a self-serve concession stand — into an outdoor takeout-style window, where staff will serve snacks.

On top of that, the Port Elmsley Drive-In will stop accepting cash.

Bird said he's surprised the province hasn't allowed drive-ins to open yet because they are a natural fit for a world where people must stay two metres apart.

"From what we can tell, we're able to check all the boxes for safety protocols," said Bird. "We were social distancing before it was cool."

Quebec drive-ins can open on Friday

Meanwhile, movie lovers in Gatineau will be able to go to the drive-in starting this weekend. Quebec's Minister of Culture and Communications announced last week that drive-ins can reopen on May 29.

A temporary drive-in organized by the marketing agency Orkestra is being set up at Place des Festivals, which housed Cirque du Soleil in 2017 and 2019.

"We are currently selecting the films. It's probably going to be a mix of Quebec classics and some new things," said Orkestra co-chair Alex Van Dieren. 

A donation to La Manna de l'Île food bank will be made during each performance.

With files from Joseph Tunney and Denise Fung

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