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Montana Allows A Drive-In Theater To Stay Open, After Governor's Office Makes Call

The Amusement Park Drive-In is located on the outskirts of Billings, Montana, the state's largest city.
Courtesy of Casey Page/The Billings Gazette
Billings Gazette
The Amusement Park Drive-In is located on the outskirts of Billings, Montana, the state's largest city.

The owner of the Amusement Park Drive-In Theatre in Montana is happy to be back in business, after getting conflicting messages from officials about whether the drive-in is allowed to operate under newly relaxed restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of two drive-ins in the state, the movie theater had been told to shut its driveway to customers this week after initially joining the wave of businesses that reopened, according to a report from the Billings Gazette.

But after the article ran in Thursday's paper, Gov. Steve Bullock's office got in touch with owner Riley Cooke, who uses the spelling of theater that is more common in English-speaking countries outside the U.S.

"The Governor's office just called and said this whole thing was a mistake, that he always wanted drive-in theatres open and they missed that line in the directive that said drive-in theatres," Cooke wrote on the drive-in's Facebook page. "We now have the Governor's authorization to STAY OPEN!! Come watch a movie under the stars tonight."

Cooke's post about the governor's reprieve has been liked by nearly 2,000 people — including some who said they plan to drive over to watch a movie. The Amusement Park Drive-In is located on the western outskirts of Billings, the state's largest city.

Cooke had become frustrated after he was initially told his drive-in could begin operating this week — only to then see local and state officials reverse that stance.

The drive-in owner had spent more than $3,000 on supplies and movie distributor deals, after getting written confirmation that he could reopen.

But on Tuesday, Cooke received notice from the county health director that he couldn't actually open, due to concerns over people crowding around the concessions area. The official stance was finally resolved on Thursday.

The other drive-in theater in Montana, the Silver Bow Drive-In near Butte, announced today on Facebook that it will open in the next few weeks.

"I just want to work safely and to provide a simple distraction in a very safe environment: your car," Cooke wrote. "Drive-in theatres are not a complicated business, it's just popcorn."

Cooke's two-screen drive-in is now showing Trolls World Tour and The Invisible Man.

As of Thursday, Montana's health department was reporting 453 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to member station Montana Public Radio.

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Austin Horn is a 2019-2020 Kroc Fellow. He joined NPR after internships at the San Antonio Express-News and Frankfort State-Journal, as well as a couple stints in the service industry. He aims to keep his reporting grounded in the experience of real individuals of all stripes.