The Last Picture Show

Drive-In Theatres Fail to Stay Open During Pandemic Despite Strong Preventative Measures


Conner Caughlin

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 theatres.

Conner Caughlin

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


Drive-ins across Oklahoma were open until Gov. Kevin Stitt expaned his “safer-at-home” policy to all 77 Oklahoma counties on Wednesday. As a result, all non-essential businesses, including drive-in theaters, have been closed until April 30.


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


“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,’” said Smith. “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 has closed to abide by this policy, but Smith says he is working to reopen as soon as he can.


The Chief Drive-In in Ninnekah, just outside Chickasha, took extra precautions when it opened. According to its website, customers need to park their cars at least one space apart from each other and call the concession stand to place their orders. When the food was ready, they would pick it up from a gloved worker standing behind a sneeze shield. 


Anna Mullen and Alex Quinn, both University of Oklahoma students, were sitting in the back of a pickup truck at the back of the Chief’s parking lot. They remarked on the seemingly perfect way to get out of the house, yet remain socially distant.


“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 theatre. There’s fresh air.”


Since drive-ins offer this unique form of separated community, some religious organizations have asked to use the drive-in facilities to conduct their sermons. Nathan Flaherty, owner of the EL-CO Drive-In in Shattuck, said he was happy to offer the theatre to these 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 are grateful for the opportunity to enjoy a treasured part of American culture.


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


Unless Gov. Stitt extends the closure, these drive-ins plan to open again on May 1st with the same sanitary procedures.


Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.