Despite pouring rain at 8 p.m. Friday, a steady line of cars entered the Howard County Fairgrounds for a showing of the movie “Guardians of the Galaxy” on the big screen. Sponsored by the Ellicott City Rotary Club, the movie was the last in a short, improvised series featuring a movie every Friday night in July and once in June.
“We wanted to do something to give back to the community,” said Carey Kyler, a Rotary member. “People needed to get out.”
In six weeks, members put together a plan to offer movies at a “drive-in” by renting an inflatable screen, securing use of the fairgrounds, obtaining film rights and rounding up volunteers. Rules were created, including: no lawn chairs or sitting outside of vehicles, though sitting inside truck beds was OK; masks were to be worn when walking outside of vehicles; and a limited number of 300 cars would be allowed. A fee of $20 per car was decided, with funds benefiting Howard County charities.
“It pulled together really, really quick,” Kyler said, as she walked through the wet grounds taking photos. “It has been so much fun. I have loved every minute of this.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic and government restrictions prevented venues from hosting outdoor events in the beginning of summer, many — though not all — are now hosting outdoor concerts and movies throughout the county.
“It was a careful experiment,” said Anastasia MacDonald, director of community relations for Clarksville Commons, of the first Friday concert in June. “We wanted to see how it would feel. How it would go over. How people would behave.”
The concert, by rock cover band Walls & Vino, was a success, she said, with people maintaining social distancing and wearing masks. Outdoor movie showings began in July and have been well received, too.
“The numbers are about on par as last summer, which is interesting,” MacDonald said. “Normally, you want to have grown the numbers. To hold steady feels nice.”
With too many unknowns concerning COVID-19, Dave Carney, owner of The Wine Bin on Ellicott City’s historic Main Street, decided not to offer his annual Saturday outdoor movie nights despite several requests from customers.
“I struggled with it, but I do not know how to keep people safe,” Carney said. “People are acting like [the virus] is going away, and it is actually getting worse; the numbers are going up.”
Carney said he understands people are tired of being stuck in their houses, but he doesn’t know the correct way to proceed.
“People want things to do. It’s rough,” said Carney, who follows strict protocols in his store and has not hosted any wine tastings or in-person classes since the pandemic began. Instead, he has found success hosting cooking and wine classes online and has plans to start online cocktail classes in August.
“We sell out. Some people do every one,” Carney said. “Anybody can watch it. If you buy the kit, you have everything you need to make dinner.”
Carney is not alone in his decision to not host in-person events. The city of Laurel’s Department of Parks and Recreation is “being very cautious” with its summer programs, according to a staff member. While it has opened its public swimming pools, it has canceled many of its programs, including its outdoor summer movie program.
Turf Valley Towne Center traditionally hosts an outdoor concert series every Thursday night from June through August. Extensive plans were made — including painted circles to space people — for three outdoor concerts in August. On Monday, Turf Valley announced the concerts were canceled.
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“After careful consideration and further review of state/county trends, we have made the difficult decision to postpone our 2020 Summer Concert Series until 2021,” the company said in a statement provided by Alicyn Ames, director of marketing and communications.
“While we believe the new format and rules allowed for a safe alternative, the health and safety of our tenants, guests and staff is our number one priority and we feel that this is the best decision we can make right now. While we are disappointed, we look forward to partnering and creating other ways to bring the community together whether virtually or safely at the site. We encourage everyone who wanted to join us to continue to support our restaurants and businesses whether utilizing our curbside pickup or enjoying a meal on one of the restaurant’s outdoor patios.”
While summer is a wash, Carney has not made a decision about the fall yet. If things improve with the pandemic, he might consider showing movies if he can get the rights to films. The Ellicott City Rotary Club is also planning to offer more drive-in features in the fall, Kyler said.
“It is feel-good entertainment,” Kyler said. “People here are in good moods and happy to be out.”
Though lightning flashed to the north throughout Friday’s screening of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the rain stopped and viewers saw the sun set before the movie began.
“It’s a great way to get out with the family and be under the stars,” said Pete Dixon, of Marriottsville, who borrowed his father-in-law’s pick-up to attend. “Isn’t this cool? We thought it was a great idea.”