Ontario drive-in theatre owners feel 'overlooked' as they wait for nod to reopen amid COVID-19

Drive-in movie theatre operators in other provinces are calling 2020 “the year of the drive-in” — but in Ontario, the screens remain dark. 

As other Canadian drive-ins stage a physically distant comeback, Ontario screens still dark

Stoney Creek's Starlite theatre is one of about 15 drive-ins in the province waiting for permission to reopen. (Starlite/Facebook)

Drive-in movie theatre operators in other provinces are calling 2020 "the year of the drive-in" — but in Ontario, the screens remain dark. 

"We feel in a lot of ways we've been overlooked, and other seasonal businesses and other outdoor activities have been green-lit," said Brian Allan, owner of Premier Drive-in Theatres, which runs six drive-ins in southern Ontario. 

Though theatres in places like British Columbia and Saskatchewan are announcing a triumphant comeback in the age of COVID-19, Ontario has yet to allow its 15 or so drive-ins to open. 

"They haven't made the distinction between an indoor movie theatre and our outdoor movie theatres," said William Alexander, who owns the Muskoka Drive-in in Gravenhurst, Ont. 

Alexander, along with a group of other drive-in operators, sent a letter to the province making the case that his business is a safe way for the public to enjoy movies during the pandemic. 

"Every province in Canada has drive-ins open, with the exception of two: Ontario, and Nova Scotia," Allan said in an interview with CBC Radio's Ontario Morning

'Your car is your PPE' 

As drive-in owners contact their MPPs and write letters urging the province to let them open, they're also preparing for the day the green light comes. 

"We've all spent hours and thousands of dollars to be COVID ready," said Alexander, who described his new Plexiglas barriers and closed playground. 

How COVID-19 is changing the drive-in

3 years ago
Duration 2:38
From Plexiglass barriers to parking attendants, Bob Boyle has made a host of changes to his drive-in because of the coronavirus.

At the six Premier theatres, which include the Starlite in Hamilton and 5 Drive-in in Oakville, Allan has been working on a series of steps to minimize any contact with customers, including having them buy tickets and concessions online, decking staff out in masks and shields, and reducing capacity so cars can be parked even farther apart. 

"We feel that it's very safe, and we take it very seriously, the health requirements," said Allan. 

Asked by CBC Toronto when drive-ins may be able to open up, a spokesperson from the Ministry of Finance said in a statement that "for workplaces to open safely, they need to have appropriate measures in place. 

Drive-in owners in other provinces say they're hearing from different organizations hoping to take advantage of their facilities, including concert organizers, religious congregations, and schools looking to host graduations. (

"Key public health indicators will guide when Ontario progresses to the next stage," the statement continued. 

"I don't know if it's a political decision… or if the health department just doesn't understand drive-ins," said Allan. "In a way, your car is your PPE," he added, referring to the personal protective equipment worn by health-care workers. 

'A little taste' of normalcy 

Dave Schofield of Pickering, Ont., a fan of drive-ins well before the pandemic began, is hoping he'll have the chance to visit one sooner rather than later. 

"I don't know; something about it is just rather charming," he told CBC Toronto. 

"It's one way to give people a little taste of outside, without having them break social distancing."

Schofield has taken to Facebook, along with several others, to ask Toronto's last drive-in theatre, The Docks, to consider reopening its screen to the public. 

The Docks became solely a driving range in 2018, and ownership says they have no plans to switch back —  though they do still have their screen and have hosted private events. 

In 1982, people visiting a Toronto-area drive-in theatre would wrap a wire around their antenna to ensure they would get good sound for the show. Drive-ins in the city had a heyday in the mid-20th Century, but many closed in the 1970s. (Spotlight/CBC Archives)

Alexander admits seeing all the excitement about drive-ins beyond Ontario's borders has been "a little upsetting," and Allan says he's been getting message after message from would-be customers asking when he'll open.

As for the issue of supply — many Hollywood studios are delaying the release of their summer slate of blockbusters — Allan says he'll do what many other Canadian operators have done and turn to his stock of classics, like Grease, Saturday Night Fever and E.T. 

"The idea of going out into the drive in, under the stars, and seeing even a classic movie, its just so much fun. And you're getting out of the house and having a quasi-social experience," he said.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?