Alberta has reversed its decision to ban drive-in movies temporarily due to COVID-19 safety concerns — after venues across the province argued it could be done safely and at least one said it would reopen regardless of provincial restrictions.
Late last week, Alberta Health Services temporarily cancelled drive-in movies in areas with high active COVID-19 case counts across the province, because of fears of the coronavirus spreading through people mingling outside their vehicles.
The move came as an abrupt shock to many businesses that had screenings booked on the weekend and beyond.
At least one venue, the Grey Eagle Drive-In at the Grey Eagle Casino on the Tsuut'ina First Nation just southwest of Calgary, said it only found out at about 5:30 p.m. Thursday that it had to cancel that night's showing of Dirty Dancing.
Other drive-ins like the High River Sunset Drive-In in High River also had to cancel their plans last minute, and urged the province to rethink the decision.
At least one venue — the Grey Eagle Drive-in — said it would resume film screenings despite the provincial regulations.
Grey Eagle Drive-in announced Sunday that it would resume film screenings on Wednesday with Star Wars: The Force Awakens after Tsuut'ina Nation chief and council approved it to proceed, deeming the safety measures it had in place were sufficient. The chief and council have authority to determine what activities take place on the First Nation land, it said.
The Event Group had partnered with the Grey Eagle Casino, Super Vison and Tsuut'ina Nation to build an outdoor theatre with three massive screens and a stage to host drive-in live concerts, movies, car karaoke and other events like comedy nights, and had lined up a busy schedule of events.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief public health official, gave outdoor theatres a reprieve on Monday, saying the health restrictions would be amended effective immediately based on feedback and a further discussion of relative risk.
The news came as a relief to drive-in operators.
"We're really happy that they changed their minds and re-evaluated the risk on this," said Jeff Langford, an operator of the High River Sunset Drive-In.
Langford is part of the classic car group that brought and restored the 1950s-era Eamon's Garage to High River, opening the drive-in in 2020. He pointed out the drive-in requires a car-and-a-half length between vehicles and observes social distancing protocols.
Langford said the Friday closure — which happened as cars were lined up to attend a double screening — meant a loss of about $3,900 for local charities.
"We have some overheads to cover on that, but we're a registered non-profit. So we had 98 slots out of 130 sold out that night, and that equated to about $3,900 lost to that charity that night — for that single night — because we were running for both nights, the Friday and the Saturday night."
Langford said despite last weekend's losses, the group is looking forward to screening movies this coming weekend.
The drive-in issued refunds, but Langford hopes disappointed patrons will return.
"That's a real big thing for a family to be able to get out these days and have something like that for the kids," he said.
"We had a couple that had plans and came down with their kids and bought movies for both nights and had planned to stay over in the hotel, and when the kids heard about it, they were crying in the vehicle, of course, pretty upset about it."
With files from The Homestretch.