Faced with the cancellation of its annual county fair due to COVID-19, the San Mateo County Event Center has come up with a creative and profitable use for its sprawling outdoor grounds: drive-in movies.

The outdoor showings, which began June 19, help the Event Center recover lost revenue from the fair, while providing residents with a movie venue to replace closed indoor theaters.

“We don’t think people are going to feel comfortable going back into the theater for a while,” said Dana Stoehr, CEO of the Event Center, who led a team that came up with the drive-in idea.

The outdoor movies have proved a smash hit, and the 400-car fairgrounds space has sold out well in advance of each showing, with tickets costing $35 per vehicle.

The first movie night featured “Dodgeball,” followed by “Napoleon Dynamite” on June 20 and “Independence Day” last Friday. Showings are expected to resume after the July 4 holiday.

Shiomara Allende attended the initial night of the movie series with a few friends. It was her first experience with a drive-in movie.

Bring your own snacks

“Entry is per vehicle irrelevant of the quantity of occupants, which is more affordable compared with a regular cinema price which charges per individual,” Allende said.

She also joked that a benefit to drive-in movies is that you can bring unlimited snacks without worrying about sneaking them into the theater.

Stoehr said her staff encountered a few hurdles on the first night, including the need to remind attendees who left their cars of the need to wear masks and observe social distancing.

“The next night we increased security, and added an additional bike barricade,” Stoehr said.

Making sure all the vehicles had a good view of the screen was also a challenge initially.

“We split the lot differently; people with trucks or SUVs were directed in the back section,” she said.

Showing drive-in movies is one of several steps the nonprofit Event Center is taking in an effort to remain solvent. Working with San Mateo County government, the center has also been designated a Governor’s Office of Emergency Services site, receiving Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement for helping to house quarantined people in recreational vehicles on part of the fairgrounds.

Fairs not all equal

But while the movies and other measures will likely return some lost revenue in San Mateo County, fairgrounds elsewhere in the state haven’t been as lucky.

According to the California Fairs Alliance advocacy group, some California fairgrounds are at risk of closing unless they receive emergency funding from the state.

“Fairgrounds rely on event revenues to operate,” reads a statement on the Fairs Alliance website. “With the postponement or cancellation of events, revenue streams have been severely depleted.”

For many Californians, the shutdown of county fairs ends, at least for now, an annual tradition filled with the smell of barbecued turkey legs, cotton candy, corn dogs and funnel cake, and surrounded by the dizzying sounds of carnival rides and games.

In an effort to recapture a portion of that, San Mateo’s new drive-in is selling popular fair concessions such as fried Oreos, barbecue, corn dogs and funnel cakes prior to the movie starting.

And Stoehr said she hopes to build on the drive-in movies’ success by adding other events this summer.

“The staff has come up with some brilliant ideas,” she said. “One is a jazz performance where you sit in your car to watch live jazz.”