LANSING, N.Y. — Let’s face it: COVID is going to change the way we do a lot of things. The way we shop, the way we work, the way we enjoy our spare time. Maybe it’s a temporary thing until a vaccine is ready, maybe the change is permanent. But, with the contagiousness and severe health impacts now well-recognized, we’ll be adapting our behaviors accordingly.

Among those changes is the movie theater experience. The virus thrives in enclosed spaces where the unknowing or asymptomatic can circulate it, and the unaware become infected. A mask offers some protection, but it’s not impenetrable. As a result, sitting in a dark room for two hours with a hundred strangers becomes a lot less appealing, regardless of the latest blockbuster.

For those who miss the thrill of watching the big screen, some enterprising types have decided to dust off an old idea and bring it back into our troubled times – the drive-in movie theater.

Some older readers may remember them fondly, but many younger ones may not. Drive-ins once numbered over 4,000 in their 1950s heyday. Before COVID, the number remaining had plunged to a mere 330 nationwide.

Still, in these times of social distancing, they’re enjoying something of a renaissance. Several “pop-up” drive-ins have opened around the state in recent weeks. They’re not complicated affairs. You buy your tickets online, drive over and let an attendant direct you to a spot, turn on your FM radio to the stated frequency and kickback. It’s a chance to get out of the house, tune out for a little while and enjoy a flick from the comfort and safety of your car. Only now, instead of the pounds of chrome and bench seats of the 1950s barge on wheels, you get heated seats, cupholders, and digital sound.

The town of Lansing may be the next community to join in the trend. The town planning board is looking at a proposal from Luna Street Food owner Kevin Sullivan for a pop-up theater at the Community Recreation Center (The Rink) at 1767 East Shore Drive. The parking lot can host up to 350 vehicles, but for social distancing purposes the pop-up theater staff would space out car-bound moviegoers, with a maximum occupancy of 50 vehicles.

As planned, movies would be shown on weekend nights, after hours when the Community Recreation Center’s closed. With tickets being sold online, it allows the theater to cap the number of attendees without overflow problems. Concession food and beverage would also be purchased online, and customers could pick their food up from an on-site drive-thru when they arrive. Bathroom trailers with running water and plenty of soap and sanitizer would be provided, with regular cleaning for safety’s sake.

As for the screen itself, it’s nothing fancy. A 20′ x 30′ white tarp pulled taut over a metal frame and secured by cables to the ground. It can be taken down at the end of each night if desired. It would be located on the west side of the property on the grass. Lighting would be provided by the lot between films, The Rink’s letterboard would provide signage, trash would be collected in bins by the exit and emptied into on-site dumpsters, and the concessions drive-thru is a 10′ x 20′ tent that would come down during the week. This is by no means an ornate, fussy affair.

“These planned events will help bring the community together in a contact-free way during a period when people need a sense of normality and time is of the essence to have that impact with these events,” wrote Sullivan in a letter to the town.

Schedule-wise, the plan is for movies on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. An earlier family film would be shown in the 7:30-10:00 PM time frame, and some weekend nights would have a second film from 10:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. featuring indy films and classic movies, intended for adults or couples out for a date night. With some homeowners nearby, the intent is to limit these later films to occasional special events.

Sullivan is hoping for expedited approval of site plan paperwork, and given the pop-up nature and the fact that it’s a drive-thru, there may be a chance, though it’s not certain. The earliest possible approval would be at the town planning board meeting on June 22nd. A website (www.driveinithaca.com) is already up, partly as a mock-up and partly to get things off the ground as soon as possible for the summer season. Ticket prices appear to be $10-$30 depending on the number of vehicle occupants.

We’ll see if the town gives the pop-up drive-in a green light. In a time of great uncertainty and anxiety, and with a summer that will be among the most unusual most of us have seen in a long time, it would be nice for a few moments of relative normalcy. There’s a certain pleasure in cracking the windows for a sweet evening breeze, turning the radio dial to the right frequency, sitting back and basking in the glow of a makeshift movie screen, and just letting the world go by for a little while.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.