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Drive-ins offer Quebecers rare trip to movies during COVID-19 pandemic

Last Updated Jun 7, 2020 at 2:23 pm PDT

People wait for the start of the movie at the re-opening of the St-Eustache Drive-In amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Friday, June 5, 2020 in St-Eustache, Que.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

DORVAL, Que. — Perched atop the family’s white SUV, Keero Birla’s two children, Kishan and Darian, are chatting excitedly about what awaits them: in less than half an hour, as soon as the sun sets, they will be watching their first movie at a drive-in.

“I think we’re starved for social interaction, like everybody, so as soon as we heard that this was happening, we jumped on it,” Birla said about what brought him and his family out to the drive-in in Dorval, a suburb 20 kilometres west of downtown Montreal.

Dorval organized two movie nights this weekend in an empty parking lot across from a shopping mall.

With many activities still closed across Quebec due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dorval is one of a few places that have turned to drive-ins as a way to give residents something fun to do while following social distancing rules.

Over a dozen rows of cars were parked in the lot on Friday night for a sold-out showing of “Sonic the Hedgehog.” Families sat on camping chairs and blankets, in their cars or in the backs of pickup trucks — and most brought their own popcorn.

People are “tired of staying at home and doing nothing,” said Sebastien Gauthier, a communications officer for Dorval, who said the city sold 160 spots for the Friday movie and spent $15,000 to organize the two screenings.

“I know everybody was itching to just go out and do something interesting,” he said.

Quebec has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Dorval was not spared. Quebecers first came to appreciate the horrible toll inside long-term care homes when reports emerged in early April of dozens of deaths and absent staff inside Dorval’s private Residence Herron.

But as new cases subsided in Quebec, the province last month began gradually allowing businesses to reopen and certain activities to resume. Drive-ins could reopen as of May 29, the government said, as long as social distancing rules were followed.

Birla said he remembers going to a drive-in in Maine years ago on family trips, and he said he wanted to share the experience with his own children.

“We would see a double feature and eat and relax,” he said. “This is kind of a rare gift to be able to share that with the kids and give them an experience that I cherish in my own memory.”

While the Dorval screening was a one-time event, for Quebec’s more established drive-ins, the rules around COVID-19 mean that this summer will be unlike any other.

Only a handful of seasonal drive-ins — known as cine-parcs in French — still operate in the province, including one in St-Eustache, just north of Montreal, that has been showing outdoor movies for decades.

“We (have owned) the cine-parc since 1971,” said Brigitte Mathers, president of Groupe Mathers, which runs the drive-in along with a nearby flea market. “We have five screens and we can have up to 3,300 cars.”

But with social distancing rules in place, Mathers said the drive-in will only be able to take in about half the usual number of cars because they need to be parked more than two metres apart.

Mathers said she also decided to only show one movie per screen during the drive-in’s inaugural weekend, which began Friday, so that she could make sure everything runs smoothly.

“It’s very complicated. Naturally, it’s not going to be as busy, but there’s nothing you can do,” she said.

Another unexpected problem, Mathers said, is that new releases aren’t coming out while movie theatres remain closed due to the pandemic.

This weekend, Cine-Parc St-Eustache is showing movies that came out in 2018, 2019 and earlier this year: “Aquaman,” “Bloodshot,” “Onward,” “Trolls World Tour,” and a Quebec film, “Menteur.”

“There’s one (new) movie coming out in July,” Mathers said.

“But (otherwise) it’s all old product, because the producers are all holding their movies for when everybody is going to be open, so it is a little particular this year.”

Still, some of Quebec’s smaller drive-ins are hoping that a lack of other options during the pandemic will bring people out in large numbers.

There are drive-ins in Quebec’s Gaspe region, in the Laurentians north of Montreal, in Mont-St-Hilaire, about 40 kilometres southeast of Montreal, and in Sherbrooke in the Eastern Townships.

“There are no festivals, there are no shows, the cinemas are still closed, so I think that will mean an increase in interest for the drive-in,” said Francois Pradella, co-owner of Cine-Parc Orford in Sherbrooke.

He said for its May 29 reopening, the two-screen drive-in was reconfigured for physical distancing allowing up to 650 cars each night — about 85 per cent its usual capacity.

“People who didn’t have drive-ins on their radar, I think they’re going to give us a second look because there’s nothing else (to do),” he said.

The town of Vaudreuil-Dorion, just west of Montreal, is testing that theory: It allocated $100,000 to build a drive-in in a high school parking lot for the summer. Expected to open in early July, it will be able to accommodate 100 cars.

Mayor Guy Pilon said he hopes the new attraction will give families a chance to do something fun together during the pandemic — and bring the experience of watching movies under the stars to a younger generation.

That is what 15-year-old Olivia Dunk was excited about in Dorval, sitting in her family’s van with her brother Gavin, 12, and father, Fred, just before the movie began Friday.

“You don’t really see (drive-ins) nowadays …. It’s not something that’s around in 2020,” she said.