Manitoba drive-in theatres get green light to open for season after province reverses initial decision

By | May 5, 2020

It will be lights, camera and action after all for the two drive-in movie theatres in Manitoba.  

The outdoor facilities initially didn’t make the list of non-essential businesses that were allowed to reopen Monday, in the first phase of the province’s plan to relax rules put in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Movie theatres won’t be allowed to reopen until a later phase of that plan.

However, the province posted on its site late Tuesday afternoon that drive-in theatres will be allowed to open for the season.

Dawn Hlady, who owns the Big Island drive-in theatre in Flin Flon, says she’s looking forward to kicking off a new season later this month — especially after initially being told outdoor theatres wouldn’t be allowed to reopen so soon.

“I’m actually shocked. I don’t have the words right now,” she said. “I’m totally ecstatic.”

When she first heard that the province was moving toward allowing businesses to reopen, she contacted the province’s Engage Manitoba hotline for clarification on what that meant for her business.

A representative told her the drive-in wasn’t allowed to open.

“There was an absolute no. I proposed my whole plan and it was a no,” Hlady said.

She contacted Engage Manitoba a few more times to get answers, and even wrote an email to Premier Brian Pallister to plead her case.  

While the situation was frustrating, she’s now breathing a sigh of relief after receiving an email from the province telling her she’ll be able to open.

Dawn and Dan Hlady own the Big Island Drive-In Theatre in Flin Flon. The couple bought the drive-in in 2015. (Submitted by Dawn Hlady)

The only drive-in theatre in northern Manitoba has a history that dates back to 1957. Hlady and her husband purchased it in 2015.  She says the drive-in features a concession, patio and a parking lot that can accommodate up to 200 cars.  

She says she’s putting safety measures in place to ensure physical distancing, including contactless payment.

“We were a cash-only site, so now the venue would involve debit transactions and credit cards as well,” Hlady said.

“We have a mobile ordering platform ready to go, so people can literally place food orders from inside their car now, instead of even having to come into the concession.”

Marlene, left, and Kayla Nelson say the Stardust Drive-In in Morden is not just a side business, but a passion. (Jillian Taylor/CBC)

Marlene Nelson understands what Dawn Hlady is going through. Nelson and her family have owned Manitoba’s only other currently operating drive-in theatre, the Stardust in Morden, since 2002.

She admits the business has seen its struggles since opening back in 1963, but it has overcome those hurdles.

“People have been enjoying coming to the drive-in again … going back to a simpler time, and [enjoying] that outdoor atmosphere,” she said.

Trying to plan for the summer this year has been a challenge due to the pandemic, she says, but she can now focus on getting ready to open.

The announcement she’ll be able to reopen brings a sense of “relief and excitement” she said.

“We felt that we had fallen between the cracks, and I’m sure that’s what it was. I’m sure that they didn’t know where exactly to group us before.”

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, said Tuesday the province has to take a measured approach to reopening. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Early Tuesday afternoon, during his daily COVID-19 update, Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, was asked why drive-in theatres were initially left out of the first phase of the reopening plan. Some other outdoor facilities, like playgrounds and golf courses, were allowed to reopen this week.

“We just can’t open everything at once. We have to draw the line somewhere,” Roussin said.

“I can say with the drive-in movie theatres, this is something that we are looking at right now and I will probably have more information on that in the near future.”

That information came sooner than expected — just a few hours later, when Nelson and Hlady got a response from the province telling them they’d be able to open.

“Drive-in movie theatres must ensure all those attending can reasonably maintain a distance of two metres between each other,” the province said in a written response to them. “In addition, concession stands must follow the orders and guidelines in place for food vendors.”

Nelson says The Stardust — which normally opens on the May long weekend — will open in June this year, to give staff the time to get ready for the season.

Meanwhile, Hlady says she’s aiming to open Big Island to eager moviegoers in Flin Flon next weekend.

“With this news … I will be heading out there tonight,” she said Tuesday. “I’m ready to work … just to get people seeing the movies.”

Hlady says she doesn’t know what led the province to reverse its decision, but thinks it may be because there are only two drive-ins in Manitoba — and because she and Nelson made a strong case to be allowed to reopen.

“Hearing from us that are actually operators on how the business does exist — a lot of people don’t really know what a drive-in is anymore.”

Hlady says opening for the season was never about about making money.

“It’s about giving our community, and especially the kids, something to do.… I mean, their whole lives have been flipped upside down,” she said.

“This is the safest place to be for families and for the best entertainment right now.”

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