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Eastern Oregon drive-in theater to reopen with coronavirus precautions

Cars have always been at least six feet apart. Food servers will ferry orders to customers. One person at a time in the restrooms.
Credit: Ben Lonergan, East Oregonian
The M-F Drive-In Theater in Milton-Freewater is set to open for its 59th season later this month after receiving the go-ahead from the health department, according to owner Mike Spiess.

MILTON-FREEWATER, Ore — Movie theaters across the country may remain closed, but Mike Spiess is gearing up to provide Eastern Oregon with some vintage entertainment once again in the coming weeks.

After receiving the go-ahead from the health department, Spiess, owner of the M-F Drive-In Theater in Milton-Freewater, will open his doors again for business beginning on Friday, April 17.

“Originally, we could have opened up this week,” he said. “The health department said we could if we wanted to. We decided not to open for movies and big crowds this weekend. We still have some questions, and the weather has been crappy.”

Beginning on April 10, the theater will open for takeout snack orders only. Once the facility is ready to begin screening movies again on April 17, Spiess said he will be setting strict regulations in place to keep his customers and employees safe during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Parking, he said, will likely not be changing, because spaces are already distanced at 6 feet apart. The theater will keep its lobby closed, and employees will take concession orders from car windows of customers. Orders will be delivered to the cars once they are prepared. The facility is also allowing one customer into the restroom at a time, and the restrooms will be wiped down after each use.

“Obviously, it’s not ideal,” Spiess said, “but we have a plan for all that. We have one group of workers taking orders, another passing them out, and another preparing the food.”

Born in Pendleton, Spiess’ family has been in the drive-in theater business since 1961. The Pendleton locations, he said, closed in 1980. His theater in Milton-Freewater is now one of just four drive-ins left in Oregon.

“I think we are providing a service,” he said. “It does give a sense of normalcy and a degree of safety. It’s important for people to have that. There’s other drive-in theaters that have already opened up across the country. If we can satisfy the government health guidelines, then we’re going to open up.”

Once open for business, the drive-in will screen recent movies released in the calendar year before movie studios began postponing their theatrical releases. They will begin with a double feature of the latest Pixar animated film “Onward,” followed by the Harrison Ford-starring family adventure film “Call of the Wild.”

“We can also hook a DVD player up to our projector, as long as we get permission from the film companies to do it,” Spiess said. “It’s a unique situation. It’s becoming a rare business in the Northwest.”

The M-F Drive-In is open six nights a week during the summer, and Fridays and Saturdays only beginning in September. General admission tickets cost $7, and children aged 11 and under are admitted for $2.

This article was originally published by East Oregonian, one of more than a dozen news organizations throughout the state sharing their coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak to help inform Oregonians about this evolving health issue.

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