Some Northeast Ohio high schools turning to drive-in theaters to host graduation ceremonies

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CLEVELAND (WJW) — Dozens of Northeast Ohio school districts are turning to drive-in movie theaters to host modified graduation ceremonies.

Some county health departments are allowing those to go forward, even though drive-ins remain closed for traditional movie showings under state order.

Aut-O-Rama Drive-In Theater in North Ridgeville was scheduled to open last month.

“This can shut us down. We are seasonal, so if we don’t have enough business or can’t open long enough in the summer time to get us through the winter, there might not be a next year,” owner Tim Sherman said.

Sherman said about 20 school districts have asked to use the drive-in to show a graduation video, with graduates and families remaining in vehicles. Lorain County Public Health officials Thursday gave approval for the ceremonies as long as capacity is restricted to half, people remain in vehicles and a police officer is on site.

Sherman said his theater is able to accommodate about 450 cars for each ceremony.

“Everyone could be safe in their cars, social distancing from each other,” Sherman said. “We can limit the number of cars that come into the theater, and no one would be allowed to get out of their cars.”

Twinsburg City Schools Superintendent Kathi Powers said the district booked the Midway Drive-In Theater in Ravenna for a late-May ceremony with approval from Summit County Public Health

Powers said it is only using half of the drive-in’s capacity and won’t allow families out of their vehicles. She also said Summit County Public Health stipulated that only single family vehicles should be allowed, meaning buses and RVs will not be permitted.

“We’re going to see the commencement video, the virtual video, all together in the safety of our own vehicles,” Powers said.

*Read more stories on the coronavirus pandemic, including its impact on Ohio, here.*

Summit County Environmental Health Director Tonia Burford said the department is in contact with all superintendents in the county regarding graduation ceremonies and is following state guidance on drive-thru options, which many schools are choosing.

“We are waiting on further clarification and orders from ODH as to what that will mean for individual districts as they plan,” Burford said. “Every school district has unique and individual needs around this most unusual circumstance. Our goal at the health district is to work with each of them to find solutions.”

Drive-in theaters have remained on the state’s list of closed businesses. As of Thursday, Ohio Department of Education guidance did not list drive-ins as a potential option for graduation ceremonies. Instead, it listed options for drive-thru events conducted in a single-file line of vehicles with a police presence.

Governor Mike DeWine Wednesday said mass gatherings would not be permitted for graduation ceremonies, and he urged districts to work with local health officials.

“Each school district needs to work with their local health department to make sure that their plan is in accordance with public health guidelines to deal with this pandemic,” DeWine said.

Drive-in owners note that, unlike traditional movie theaters, their theaters are designed for people to remain in their cars, avoiding contact with others.

“It’s social distancing by itself,” Sherman said.

Several drive-in theater owners, including Sherman, encouraged customers to contact DeWine to urge him to allow them to open for movie showings.

Sherman said he’s planning precautions including reduced capacity, online ticketing and online concession orders to limit contact and reopen safely.

He said he’s still awaiting word from state and local health officials about when that may be allowed.

“People want to get out and do something, and we feel we can provide a safe environment to do this,” Sherman said.

State officials said an updated stay-at-home order is expected soon, which may include new guidance for drive-in theaters.

*More on the State of Ohio’s graduation recommendations*

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