Skip to main content

As Canada reopens from coronavirus lockdown, cars are increasingly essential to the safe enjoyment of everyday life. Here's what that looks like at drive-in theatres, zoos and even more creative pastimes

Mayor John Tory waves to patrons as they enter the Toronto Zoo's Scenic Safari, a drive-in attraction allowing visitors to see animals at a COVID-19-safe distance. The zoo closed on the first day of Ontario's March Break when the pandemic began.Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

John Tory, the mayor of Toronto, almost wore shorts. It was a sweltering day in May during the peak of the pandemic, and the Toronto Zoo had decided to allow the public back to look at animals, as long as the humans stayed in their cars. The mayor was leading a single-file flotilla of vehicles carrying the zoo’s first visitors since its shutdown 10 weeks earlier.

In the end, Mr. Tory went with his standard COVID-19 casual look – dress shirt, light grey jeans, black dress sneakers. The mayor of the fourth largest city in North America can’t be seen in shorts in public, even if he is about to tour the zoo from within the interior of a car.

The automobile is the latest answer to COVID-19’s stubborn grip, the new way to experience the world safely. The machine that first turned the world inside out 125 years ago (Suburbs! Locomotive freedom! Climate change!), the contraption that Roland Barthes called “the supreme creation of the era” and compared to Gothic cathedrals until it was revealed to be a gas-guzzling wrecker of nature’s balance – the car is once again defining our lives. As every region of the country moves into a different phase of reopening and discovers that the second wave of COVID-19 is a steep uphill, you can once again go to the zoo, but in your car; to the movies, but in your car; to an art gallery, a strip club or a farmer’s market, as long as you stay in your car.

We’re getting out again, but we’re getting used to being trapped when we do. Life via the car is almost as bewildering as shorts on a mayor. But we had better develop a taste for it.

Dean Moran cleans his windshield at the Mustang Drive-In Theatre in Guelph, Ont., as his partner's children Emma and Ashley Ellul look out from the sunroof. Drive-ins have been open in Ontario since late May.

Damian and Julia Puranda wear masks as they work the box office before showtime. They are the son-in-law and daughter of the Mustang's owner, John D'Addetta.Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail/Carlos Osorio

I began auto-neurotic life cautiously, at the Mustang Drive-In Theatre in Guelph, Ont. It was a cloudless Saturday evening, perfect for an art-delivery system that relies on good weather. The double bill – Trolls World Tour, followed by Back to the Future – was due to start at 9:30, half an hour after sunset, but the drive-in was almost full by 7:30.

The pandemic had delayed the theatre’s opening by three months, and the Ontario government wanted cars to park two metres apart, which cut the Mustang’s capacity by half, to 225 spots. The rules seemed arbitrary: Open windows were permissible, but convertibles were banned, and you weren’t allowed to open your hatch, or back your pickup into a slot and let the kids lie in the open truck bed. People milled about anyway, even though the snack bar wasn’t open, which infuriated John D’Addetta, the Mustang’s owner.

“People think of this as a drive-in movie,” Mr. D’Addetta said. He was a sturdy guy in his sixties and a Leafs cap. “In fact we are a snack bar and restaurant with a movie showing.” Sixty per cent of his gate went to the film distributor: The snack bar is his profit. Meanwhile, 13 staffers tried to maintain two-at-a-time COVID-19 rules in the bathroom. The lineup was 50 people long.

But none of this mattered, because next to Trolls World Tour, a craven lump of subcortical commercial pandering, the human scene at the Mustang was a Fellini masterpiece. Car alarms whooped regularly as people tried to find their cars after hitting the bathroom. The drive-in was a giant communal outdoor den. Pest control experts and internet marketers and schoolteachers and HVAC installers and protein biochemists, to name a few, had all arrived early to watch the sun drop behind the huge black oblong drive-in screen to the west. The screen looked like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but tipped on its side. (That would be a good movie to see at a drive-in.)

Natalie Labine, a Mustang regular, came to the theatre with a 'Quarantine Queen' T-shirt and a mask.Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail/Carlos Osorio

Natalie Labine had come two nights in a row, for the Mustang’s official reopening and again this very evening. “I’m a drive-in addict,” she said. “For me it’s my happy place. I just love nature.” She was in her early forties. Now that the COVID-19 drought was over, she planned to come every night the following week, for the surefire double bill of Grease and Sonic the Hedgehog. She always parked in the same place, in the middle of the front row of cars, “pervert’s row,” she called it, as a joke, and she brought her own tiny four-gigabyte MP3 player, which let her tune in to the movie soundtrack on 104.9 FM without ever drawing down her car battery. (That happens a lot. The Guelph Mustang employs someone to wander through the audience with a car battery and jumper cables attached to a dolly: He charges $5 a boost, and usually makes $200 on a Saturday night.)

Ms. Labine’s licence plate was Foxy NL, a gift from her mother, who died in April. “My mum always called me Cookie, but Cookie was taken as a vanity plate, so she chose Foxy instead, because I’m a foxy lady.” The virus was incurable and the world was in a rage, but Ms. Labine just wanted to be with other people. Then a guy pulled his car in right next to hers, too close. “You can’t park here,” she said. “You have to park two metres away, between those poles.” She turned to me. “Now we’ve gotta play babysitter.”

Once it's dark enough for the show to begin, the national anthem plays.Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail/Carlos Osorio

I found my Prius and spent 20 minutes figuring out how to turn on its auxiliary power without the headlights coming on. (You set the parking brake first, a guy in a Toyota explained.) Not even a third of the crowd were wearing masks; strangers started to talk two metres apart, but couldn’t help drifting closer. We’re human magnets.

But it was satisfying (and safer) just to sit in the car in the dark as night fell. The gloaming sky was its own movie. Every once in a while a cabin light perked on and off, as people rummaged and rearranged. If someone from Toronto arrived at 7 to get a good spot, and followed the COVID-19 rules and stayed in their car, and then stayed for the second (i.e. better) feature before driving home, that person was in their car for eight solid hours.

Thankfully the stars materialized at 10:29. By then, the drive-in was hushed and primal and ancient, a tribe of early beings gathered in awe around the fire of the screen. When the first movie ended and headlights sprang on, I was surprised how eager people were to break the spell and get back on the road.

Trolls: World Tour plays on the Mustang's screen. Unlike many films whose release dates were postponed when COVID-19 hit, this one – which came out March 20, less than two weeks after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic – was released simultaneously in theatres and video-on-demand services.Carlos Osorio/Carlos Osorio

Even though movies are back on the Mustang's screen, Mr. D'Addetta, the owner, is worried because the concession stand that yields most of his profit is still closed. 'People think of this as a drive-in movie,' he says. 'In fact we are a snack bar and restaurant with a movie showing.'Photos: Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail/Carlos Osorio

The pandemic is allegedly abating, but a recent Nanos poll found only a quarter of us want an immediate return to in-person events, and then with masks and physical distancing. Everyone else would rather wait an average of five months for a vaccine. This is not good news for the world of culture.

But a car lets you be safe and inside while you are outside. Cars have become sanctuaries. You see people sitting in them by bodies of water, reading, uninterrupted. I make my most private telephone calls from my car, because it’s the most private place I have these days. The air conditioning feels ultraluxurious. The point is, I don’t get in my car to look out; I get in it to go inside myself.

In Texas people line up in their automobiles to visit food banks. In Portland, Ore., the Lucky Devil drive-through strip club qualifies as an essential service because it serves drive-through “Food 2 Go-Go.” The owner, Shon Boulden, launched a stripper-centred food delivery service called Boober Eats, which resulted in a cease and desist order from Uber. His drive-through peeler bar imposes a US$30 cover charge for two dances while your calzone heats up. Lineups have been running around the block.

Royal St. George’s School in midtown Toronto was one of a slew of high schools and colleges that staged a drive-through graduation. The New England island of Nantucket held a 120-foot-long drive-through art show, mostly portraits. Drive-through concerts (DJ Alle Farben in Germany, Toronto band July Talk on Aug.12 and 13) are a dime a dozen: Concertgoers applaud by banging on the roofs of their cars.

The week before Easter, Rev. Paul Dobson, the priest of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Streetsville, on the outskirts of Toronto, tweeted that he would hear drive-through confessions – in his car in the church parking lot, separated by an inviolate two metres from parishioners in their cars, with nothing but a traffic cone between them. He’d heard the confessions of 50 penitents on the very first day when word came down that he ought to stop: He was urging people to congregate. “People were very thankful,” Father Dobson remembered. He felt “a little strange” in his car, “but no different than going through an airport and having people coming up to say ‘Father, can you hear my confession?’ and wandering off to a little corner,” which happens regularly. He thinks the pandemic has thrown the church for a loop. “I think the word ‘church’ comes from a Greek word that means ‘gathered,’ ” Father Dobson dryly noted. “And we’re not gathered.”

From the sunroof of his Prius, Ian Brown takes in the Immersive van Gogh Experience, a digital exhibit of the 19th-century Dutch painter's work.

The Toronto exhibit, designed by designed by Massimiliano Siccardi at l’Atelier des Lumieres, was originally planned for audiences on foot, then redesigned to allow drive-in visitors.Photos: Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The most ambitious attempt to use cars to bring art to people opens the first week of July in a 600,000-cubic-foot downtown cavern that used to house the printing presses of the Toronto Star. The world premiere of the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit entails driving your vehicle up a loading ramp, down a hallway, around a room, through an opening and into a parking spot next to 13 others to witness the world’s first drive-in digital art exhibition – 53 projectors casting 400 digitized and vastly expanded images of the art of Vincent Van Gogh onto the towering two-storey walls and floors around you. All the masterpieces are here: Starry Night, the Sunflowers, the Irises, the thick-penned early sketches.

The show was designed by Massimiliano Siccardi. He’s one of the principals at l’Atelier des Lumières, the virtual art museum whose “monumental immersive exhibitions” of digitized masterpieces projected in funky locations have attracted two million visitors in Paris. (Its latest industrial hipster extravaganza opened, of course, in a former submarine base in Bordeaux last week.) The 35-minute Toronto show was designed to handle 500 people an hour, on foot; the pandemic shrank the allowable audience to 100. Last February, parking his car and wondering what COVID-19 would do to his partners’ $3-million investment, co-producer Corey Ross (he brought Banksy to Toronto) had a thought: What about a drive-through phase?

The show instantly reveals Van Gogh’s single-mindedness – the obsessiveness of his technique, the feverishness of his compulsions. Some images are animated: The centres of the now-huge sunflowers rotate, the famous crows over the cornfield flap their wings. But brush strokes? “Like you’ve never seen them before,” Mr. Ross said. Van Gogh’s manic palettes jolt you awake and make you sad at the same time: the world is this beautiful, and we never get to stay for long. With the projections sprinkled across your own body, it’s easy to imagine you are in the painting, which is precisely what the Lumières artrepreneurs want people to feel. “Van Gogh went through difficult times,” Mr. Ross told me. “And we’re going through difficult times. I really think when people come to see this, it’s going to be cathartic, emotionally.”

On foot, sure. But from the front seat of a car? Ducking your head and craning your neck and peering at what turns out to be an infinitely expandable Van Gogh through a (preferably guano-free) windscreen smaller than most home TVs? Not a hope. The best thing about a car in a pandemic is that it lets you be inside and outside at once; but being “inside” a frenzied Van Gogh painting inside an immobile car inside a printing plant is a recipe for Van Gogh-scale claustrophobia. I wanted to cut my own ear off.

The producers seem to know this: A drive-through ticket automatically lets you come back on foot, to see the show the way it was supposed to be seen. “This is an experiment,” Mr. Ross said. “But I can guarantee that the experience of being here will be more interesting than another night of staying home.” That counts as a rave these days.

A family shows their appreciation for the Toronto Zoo's keepers as they drive through the Scenic Safari.

A zebra looks back at the passing motorists. Before the pandemic, the Toronto Zoo could expect up to 10,000 visitors on a busy day.Photos: Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

“How do you know if you’ll see any animals from the car?” I asked one of the Toronto Zoo minders stationed like sentries along its brand-new drive-through car safari route.

“You do not,” she said, kindly. “But that’s no different from any visit to the zoo.”

On a good pre-COVID-19 day, 10,000 people visited the Toronto Zoo. They spent a lot of time standing still, or changing their vantage point, waiting for animals to move or appear. But I was not allowed to stop my car on the $44 Toronto Zoo pandemic members-only drive-through. The speed limit is only five kilometres an hour, but the zoo was always passing by too fast.

I did see an Indian peafowl, a.k.a. peacock, through the glass of my side window and the glass of his pen, looking like a distant overdressed socialite. I saw some very trim zebras, and two motionless rhinos standing on the far side of their pen like junked tanks, and another rhino a long, long distance away: it was like spotting Ireland as you fly into Heathrow from the west. I saw parts of two lions (the back of a head, and a spine) lounging against the glass of their enclosure. I saw large antelope and small African cattle with surprisingly gigantic horns. I also saw the olive baboon, and his bright red sore-looking backside, as he sat on his slope of dirt, philosophically searching for grubs. He regularly found a few, but it wasn’t what I would call a feast. I understood his plight. I wanted to stop and get out and smell and see and feel the animal world, but I had to stay safe inside the car, and so spent most of my time trying to take photographs while trying not to accidentally drive off the road and into, say, the green hilltop pen of the cheetah, who was nowhere to be seen. It wasn’t until further along the road, by the enclosure of the capybara, also unseen, which is why I don’t actually know what a capybara looks like, that I understood my frustration.

Normally, in a zoo, the animals are fenced in, and the humans are free. The pandemic has reversed that equation. The animals are outside, and we’re the ones in cages.

Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

The Globe has five brand-new arts and lifestyle newsletters: Health & Wellness, Parenting & Relationships, Sightseer, Nestruck on Theatre and What to Watch. Sign up today.