MERCEDES — Cars rumbled through the gates of the WesMer Drive-In Theatre a little before 7 p.m. Friday for the theater’s first movie in more than a month.
By showtime, there were 117 vehicles in front of the screen, three short of the 120 car limit imposed by COVID-19 regulations. Security guards and parking attendants directed the traffic as it came in, using long PVC pipes with tennis balls on each end to space out the vehicles.
During the coronavirus pandemic, even cars have to socially distance.
Once a nostalgic reminder of a bygone age, drive-ins like WesMer now find themselves in the vanguard of the entertainment industry’s foray into post-coronavirus America. As long as you can resist visiting the restroom or stopping by the concession stand, a trip to the drive-in requires the absolute minimum of human interaction while freeing moviegoers from weeks of monotonous self-isolation.
That concession stand can be pretty difficult to resist, however. The smell of popcorn began drifting out of the window as those first cars pulled in, luring people from their vehicles. They seemed to take hygiene fairly seriously. All of them wore masks and many wore gloves. There was a limit on how many people could go into the concession stand at once.
A masked woman scolded her daughter while they walked back to their car with their cokes and popcorn.
“We’re going to clean your hands right now, don’t touch anything else,” she said.
Later, a young man walked back to his car, holding his son’s hand.
“We washed our hands,” he told the rest of the family in the car exasperatedly. “And AJ’s touched his mask about 17 times since we got out of the car.”
Other people chose to stay cosseted away in their cars, windows up and doors closed. Bertha Gonzalez of McAllen and her two daughters were in that camp, eating snacks from home and avoiding the bathrooms.
“I told them no restroom breaks,” she said.
Gonzalez lost a family member during the H1N1 epidemic and has been taking social distancing very seriously. The family’s trip to WesMer was pretty much their only excursion in the last two months.
“We haven’t gone anywhere since spring break pretty much, March 13 or so. We really, really buckled down and took the quarantine precautions very seriously, even up to the point of instacart deliveries, no grocery stores, nothing,” Gonzalez said. “It was good. I made fun of my little one. She was like Rapunzel when she got out of the tower, she was so excited.”
Gonzalez said her family will probably continue self-isolating through May or June, and that she and her daughters will likely be back to the drive-in.
“If we get cabin fever here or there, for me that’s a good option, because it involves absolutely no human contact,” she said. “It’s something different to do with them while still doing my job as a mom and keeping them safe.”
Lydia Garza, who’s operated WesMer with her husband Hector for the past 15 years, says that’s exactly the feedback she was hoping to hear. She was a bundle of nerves Friday night, worried about keeping people safe and comfortable while putting on a good show. She made a loop through the cars after the film started, checking on her patrons. They looked happy.
“They seem to be comfortable like this,” she said. “We got a couple of comments as people were going through the concession. They were like, ‘Thank you, thank you for opening again.’ It does make a difference, it makes us feel good that we’re giving these families a little breather.”
At the moment, Garza and her drive-in have an advantage over indoor movie theaters and many other recreational outlets simply because of how easy it is to simultaneously self-isolate and congregate in front of her big screen.
“That seems to be the feedback in general; the drive-ins are going to be the first ones to have that sense of comfort for most people, to feel that ease, instead of the indoor theaters. I know that the indoor theaters are, as we speak, setting up plans and trying to organize and figure out how they’re going to do it and make it safer for people,” she said.
That doesn’t mean that things have been easy for WesMer. Spring break and summer are the theater’s busy season, and a busy night could draw as many as 375 cars. Garza and her husband depend on those crowds.
To make matters worse, the film industry has delayed or canceled many movie releases. Movies Garza was hoping to show in April might not come out until July. Other movies may go online, forcing WesMer to compete with in-home entertainment.
Still, Garza remains hopeful.
“Even if they’ve already seen it, it will give them a chance to go out for a while with their family,” she said. “Some families don’t get to stream movies, so it’s beneficial to them as well.”
It’s hard not to remain hopeful at the drive-in. The projector turned on a little while after 8 p.m. and started playing a Geico commercial. A couple of nighthawks swooped between the projector and the screen, casting a shadow over the picture. A rabbit by the footing of the screen, suddenly illuminated and clearly not a fan of having a crowd back at the drive-in, slowly hopped out of view.
People started hunkering down at their cars, couples snuggling in truck beds, kids laying on blankets sprawled on the ground. People laughed and chattered and slowly got quiet as the movie started and the audio started drifting around unequally from car radios and speakers. There was a little lightning a long way off to the west, but there wasn’t a drop of rain until the end of the second feature and it didn’t spoil the evening.
“Watching a movie under the stars brings back so many memories for so many people,” Garza said. “You feel the breeze, you feel the elements outside. It just feels so different from being inside, either at home or inside a theater. It’s just this giddy emotion that people feel. Whether you’re 90 years old or 9, there’s nothing like watching a big screen movie outside.”