PORT TOWNSEND — Coming soon to a big field near you: Socially distanced movie-going.
The Wheel-In Motor Movie, one of the handful of surviving drive-in cinemas in Washington state, is set to reopen its gates at 7 p.m. Friday.
Following an online reservations-only policy, up to 70 cars will be allowed to drive in that night and on Saturday and Sunday, owner Rick Wiley said.
That’s half the venue’s capacity. Reservations are available at $15 per car via links at PTWheelInMotorMovie.com.
“This is the experimental week,” Wiley said.
“It’s a little bit scary.”
Precautions are in place in line with public health authorities’ guidelines to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Without a reservation, “I’m not going to let you in the gate, even for 500 bucks,” Wiley said. “No walk-ins, no roll-ins (in recreational vehicles), and you’ve got to manage yourself,” making minimal trips to the restroom.
This weekend, the Wheel-In, at 210 Theater Road off state Highway 19, will present two drive-in classics: 1985’s “Back to the Future” and 1973’s “American Graffiti,” with the screen lighting up at dusk. The double feature will last until the wee hours of the morning.
The concession building will offer pizza, burgers and such takeout fare, with four to six customers inside at a time.
“We’ll bring it to you in your car,” Wiley said, adding his five-worker staff will wear face masks and gloves.
As for moviegoers using masks, “I’ll certainly encourage it when you come in the building,” he said.
Wiley wants to see people staying in their vehicles for the rest of the night.
He said he’s talked with drive-in movie operators at the Skyline in Shelton and the Blue Fox in Oak Harbor, and he hopes his customers in Port Townsend will conduct themselves safely: staying 6 feet from others from outside their households and keeping their children inside the car.
As people drive in, staffers will direct them to park between the stanchions, spacing their cars about 8 feet apart.
After that, Wiley said, moviegoers will have to “run their own show” in terms of practicing physical distance.
“If it’s done right, and there’s not going to be mixing of households, I think that’s of minimum concern,” Dr. Tom Locke, Jefferson County health officer, said of the Wheel-In plans.
At the same time, the drive-in sits in a park-like setting, with open space fringed by tall evergreens, a place where normal evenings would have children and teenagers running around together.
At this point, that frolic is “probably not safe,” Locke said.
With Jefferson County in Phase 2 of the state’s four-phase reopening plan, outdoor recreation is permitted with up to five people from outside one’s household.
That recreation clause would seem to allow kids to be in play areas, he said. But bunches of youngsters playing and hanging out together is not a good idea, Locke said.
“It’s just not realistic” to expect them to stay 6 feet apart, wear masks and continually sanitize their hands, Locke said.
It’s safer for them to stick close to family members only, he added.
The movies at the Wheel-In, which has operated since 1953, will be continue to be of a certain vintage, too.
“Next Friday through Sunday, I’ll grab two more repertory pictures” to screen at the Wheel-In, Wiley said, adding he foresees doing that for at least a month as the Hollywood movie industry begins to restart its distribution of new features.
“These film companies have to wait for the population centers to open their indoor theaters,” he said.
Wiley also owns the Uptown Theatre in Port Townsend. He said he hasn’t considered when that indoor venue can reopen.
The three screens at the Rose Theatre downtown could reopen in mid-July at the earliest, said owner Rocky Friedman — if the state allows it, and if there are new movies to show.
He added that, if he interpreted Gov. Jay Inslee’s phased plan correctly, it allows for the operation of the Rose Theatre and Starlight Room, which are on Taylor Street, surrounded by restaurants that have been offering takeout lunch and dinner for weeks.
Before reopening, “I’m inclined to wait until new films are available,” rather than running classics, Friedman said.
Fresh fare, he believes, could give people reasons to go back indoors in the middle of summer.
For his part, Wiley will be busy for the next few weeks as he prepares the Wheel-In for Port Townsend High School’s graduation ceremonies.
He said attendees will stay in their vehicles and listen to the broadcast on their car radios of a few speeches from a makeshift stage.
“There will probably be 100 cars” at that event, and graduates won’t walk to the stage to collect their diplomas, he said.
Locke sought to explain the public health policy he and state officials advocate when it comes to activities such as going to a drive-in.
“We support this very much, in concept,” he said. “Anything done with a low risk that’s fun and entertaining and social, we support it.
“We’re not trying take the pleasure out of life. We’re just trying to prevent disease transmission.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.