How the Circle Drive-in ‘Found Its Niche’ in the Pandemic

With a flea market, graduations and even a livestreamed country music concert, a Pennsylvania Drive-in became a safe gathering place.

Patrons watching a Garth Brooks livestream concert at the Circle Drive-in in Dickson City, Pa., in June.Credit…Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

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By James Barron

Photographs by Michelle V. Agins

In the coronavirus pandemic, it became 15 acres of safety, 15 acres where people could lose themselves in a crowd but remain alone as they watched a movie. Or graduated from high school. Or played bingo. Or watched fireworks. Or hummed along at a concert.

The Circle Drive-in in Dickson City, Pa., a tidy borough in northeastern Pennsylvania, adapted to the new rules of the pandemic, widening the spacing for cars and admitting only half as many as in the past. It stationed the popcorn-popping crew in the concession stand behind new plastic shields and assigned employees to clean the restrooms every few minutes.

And the Circle put more than movies on its screens. It livestreamed events like a Garth Brooks concert (shown at 300 drive-ins around the country). It also reopened its Sunday flea market, begun years ago to generate revenue when it could not screen first-run movies — a drive-in has to wait for darkness; the projectionist cannot dim the lights.

By August, it had featured a live concert with the singer Aaron Lewis (at $199 a car). The concerts and other events were a necessity. “If we had just depended on movies,” recalled Dr. Joseph J. Calabro, the 64-year-old physician who oversees the Circle, “we’d be potentially out of business, because there were no new movies coming out” when the pandemic began.

In May, when the Circle opened for the summer, Dr. Calabro said, people appeared apprehensive, arriving with face masks on and car windows up. They looked frightened, going out to have fun but wondering how dangerous it was. Wondering how risky it was to unpack the cooler, unfurl the blankets and stretch out in the back of pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles.

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