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The Blue Starlite Drive-in is a pop-up theater set up in a dirt parking lot at Little Beach Park in Minturn, a high-mountain town between Vail and Beaver Creek. (Provided by Blue Starlight)
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Colorado officials this week struggled to clarify rules about drive-in movie theaters even as many of the businesses have already opened to the public.

Last weekend, drive-ins such as Fort Collins’ Holiday Twin, Montrose’s Star Drive-In, Delta’s Tru Vu and Buena Vista’s Comanche opened their gates with recent releases such as “Invisible Man,” Disney’s “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” and Pixar’s “Onward” — all of which have already been streaming online for weeks.

“Everybody’s been really good about cooperating and following social-distancing guidelines,” said Barb Groy, who co-owns Buena Vista’s Comanche with husband John. “We opened on May 8 and the turnout was great. People are just so ready to actually have someplace to go.”

Still, this week’s events highlighted the confusion that comes with trying to restart the economy during a global pandemic for which there is no modern precedent.

The good news for theater operators is that Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday said Colorado’s drive-in movie theaters can reopen across the board. His clarification followed a report from KDVR-Channel 31 that highlighted ambiguities in the state’s rules.

KDVR’s initial story, which aired Monday, noted seemingly contradictory messages from the state’s Joint Information Center and the Tri-County Health Department — the latter of which serves Douglas, Adams and Arapahoe counties.

On the one hand, the Joint Information Center issued a statement citing the Safer at Home executive order as justification for keeping drive-ins closed. Various drive-ins had already been operating across the state in recent weeks, KDVR said, noting their otherwise ideal format for social distancing and the return of warmer weather.

“Drive-in theaters are considered entertainment and are not allowed to open,” the JIC statement read. “Local public health agencies can pursue enforcement remedies if businesses are operating in violation of an executive order.”

However, Tri-County Health responded by saying the state’s health order was ambiguous.

“The local health authority interpreted the language to allow drive-in theaters to reopen,” KDVR reporter  wrote. ”Later in the evening, Tri-County Health changed course after the state told FOX31 drive-in theaters are not currently allowed to open.”

That was news to Misty Flachman, who manages the Denver Mart Drive-In just off Interstate 25 and East 58th Avenue in Adams County. She had been spending weeks preparing to reopen on Memorial Day weekend.

“We have involved our attorney, and he is looking over everything that the state has put out, and there is no specific language for drive-ins,” she told KDVR.

Similarly, Buena Vista’s Comanche had to apply for a reopening certificate with Chaffee County Public Health. That meant providing assurances that they would adhere to certain rules (socially distanced bathroom lines, cars with empty spaces between them, etc.), as well as addressing concerns about outsiders.

“Technically, Chaffee County is closed to tourism through June 1, so they were concerned we might be attracting people,” Groy said.

So are they allowed to open, or aren’t they?

They are. On Tuesday, KDVR said it obtained an email from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) that “cleared up the confusion” caused by the state’s communication team.

“The governor just asked us to clarify in the order that drive-ins are OK,” CDPHE executive director Jill Hunsaker Ryan wrote to Tri-County Health administrators.

On Wednesday, Tri-County Health officials told The Denver Post they were simply waiting for a written order to follow the state guidance, given that many businesses are eager to reopen before Memorial Day weekend. Tri-County Health officials completely agree with the state’s guidance, according to a spokesman.

For a historic drive-in like the Comanche, which opened in 1967, it’s a compromise worth making. From a normal capacity of more than 200, the drive-in has cut that in half by following distancing and health-safety measures. But that may have to be adjusted if it gets more popular, co-owner Groy said.

“We try to explain the rules to everybody before they come,” she said. “Chaffee County’s main concern is having large groups of people together, whether they’re in their cars or not.”

Fort Collins’ Holiday Twin, which opened May 1 after getting approval from Larimer County, has cut its 720-vehicle capacity in half to host 360 vehicles, all distanced 12 feet apart from other cars on the front, back and sides.

“It’s tough because we’re at half capacity, but we need double the staff,” said owner Stephanie Webb, who has been renting out her space for socially distanced graduation parties. “All those events operate just like the movie theater model: the event itself is on screen, the sound comes through an FM transmitter, and the guests remain in their cars or in chairs spaced at least 12 feet apart.”

The issue affects more than just longstanding drive-ins such as The Holiday Twin (50-plus years) or The Star Drive-In (71 years). Pop-up outdoor events, which have been common in Denver in past summers, are still appearing in the form of “Drive-In Movie Club: Denver,” which is scheduled to visit an unspecified location Aug. 16-19.

The Blue Starlite Drive-In, a mobile event based out of Austin, Texas, that advertises itself as “a mini drive-in,” is also planning a late-May return to the high country town of Minturn. The company’s website is now selling tickets for shows starting May 26, which will be limited to 30 to 50 cars. Cult classics (“The Goonies,” “Grease,” “Back to the Future”) sit alongside newer titles such as “Call of the Wild,” with car “packages” starting at $27.

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