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Drive-in theater at Marketplace will be the area's first outdoor cinema in decades

If all goes according to plan, on Friday we may see Jackie Gleason chasing Burt Reynolds on the side of the Marketplace Cinemas building, followed Saturday by Kermit the Frog singing about the Rainbow Connection. The next weekend, a Garth Brooks concert will be streamed there.

PHOTOS: Marketplace Drive-In Cinema

Then by the end of July, we should get new movies on the big screen for the first time in months. June 19 is the tentative date for the grand opening of the Marketplace Drive-In Cinema, with theater owner Daniel Kleeberg picking a personal favorite — the raucous 1977 action comedy “Smokey and the Bandit” — for the opening night film.

The next night, the drive-in will show 1979’s “The Muppet Movie,” a favorite of Kleeberg’s son, Zack Fox, the manager and head projectionist at the theater.

“We’re doing things that make us happy and bring back memories,” Kleeberg said. “A lot of movies hold up.... we all have our favorites. That’s what we’re doing, trying to play the stuff that gets us excited.”

From there, they are planning a slew of recent and classic movies — from “Black Panther” (July 10) to “Zootopia” (June 26), and including a quartet of Steven Spielberg blockbusters, the 1969 John Wayne Western “True Grit,” the “The Empire Strikes Back,” and many more.

Tickets for most shows will be $20 a carload, and patrons will reserve spaces in advance, with more than 160 spaces available in the parking lots between the Cinemas building and Marketplace Mall itself. Information and links for ordering tickets and reserving spaces will be posted on the Marketplace Cinemas Winston-Salem Facebook page. Tickets for “Smokey” and “The Muppet Movie” will be made available early this week.

June 27, Marketplace is participating in a special streaming drive-in concert event with Garth Brooks, in which tickets will be $100 for each carload of up to six people. Those tickets will be sold at Ticketmaster starting this Friday. Brooks’ concert will be exclusive to drive-in theaters across the country, with about 300 theaters participating.

When new movies begin coming back out for theaters later this summer, Marketplace plans to include them in the rotation as well, including Christopher Nolan’s next thriller, “Tenet” (originally scheduled for July 17 but recently pushed back to the 31st), Disney’s live action “Mulan” remake, “The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run,” and “Wonder Woman 1984.”

For the past few weeks, Kleeberg and Fox have been working with the owners of Marketplace Mall on an ambitious plan to revitalize the Marketplace Cinemas — which, like other indoor movie theaters, shut down several months ago due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the process, the theater owners want to bring the area its first drive-in theater since the Bel-Air in Walkertown closed in 2000. In the process, they also hope to increase interest in Marketplace Mall itself, which has invested more than $50,000 in the revamp.

“It’s going to be cool,” Kleeberg said. “It’s a commitment that we have made.”

The parking lot beside the Marketplace Cinemas building off Peters Creek Parkway is being converted into the drive-in, which is allowed under current social distancing guidelines. The side of the building has been patched and painted with a white surface that will allow the image to be screened from a mobile mini unit in the parking lot, with a projector that was set up last week for initial tests of the sight lines to determine the ideal angles for parking. The Cinemas also bought a new transmitter that will project the film audio to FM radios in the cars.

“Every individual (space) we’re going to sight-line with the image on the screen,” Kleeberg said, “We’re going to stagger it, so you’ll have one row like a regular drive-in, but the row behind it will be staggered, off-set, like you would a theater seating to get the best view. ... Big trucks will go in the very back.”

Movies will start after dark, around 8:45 p.m., and will screen rain or shine. They had looked into the idea of double features but are currently planning one movie a night, Fox said.

Food and drinks will be available before the movie each night in the theater lobby, from food trucks in the parking lot, vendors set up on the sidewalk in front of the lobby and several restaurants in the Marketplace Mall itself, including hot dogs, hamburgers, Jamaican food and more.

Several light poles in the parking lot that would obstruct the view are coming down, with plans to leave enough light that people can get out of their cars to go to the bathrooms — and, when social distancing guidelines ease, perhaps also put their lawn chairs out around their cars — while leaving things dark enough to ensure a clear image on the movie screen.

Drive-in theaters have had a revival in recent months, with theaters in Eden, Raleigh and elsewhere enjoying brisk business for families eager for a night out of the house.

Indoor theaters have been shut down for several months, and many movies that would have played theatrically — including “Trolls: World Tour” and “Artemis Fowl” — have been released for home viewing instead. Last week, AMC Theaters, the world’s largest theater operator, said it expects most of its cinemas to reopen by mid-July.

But Kleeberg, who has been in the theater business for 30 years, said that even when indoor theaters are allowed to reopen, he’s not sure how long it will be before audiences will feel comfortable in an enclosed theater — or how long it will take for movie distribution to get back to normal. “I think it’s going to be a while before people start going back to movies like they used to.”

The drive-in format, he said, gives the Marketplace a chance to “start showing movies again where people will come out.”

“I never did a drive-in because it is a lot of work,” Kleeberg said. “I never messed with the drive-in. We’ve done it now, and it’s a lot of hard work.” He said he feels the investment of time and money will be worthwhile in the end. “Like everything else, it’s a gamble. And we’ll see what happens. I think it’ll be fun.”

Fox added, “With social distancing, and baseball and everything being canceled and all the Fourth of July events, we just want to provide some movie entertainment that’s also safe, that people feel safe with.”

PHOTOS: Marketplace Drive-In Cinema

Protest organizers encourage voter registration, 'Change in our community and our world'

Organizers of some recent local rallies and marches gathered Sunday afternoon to encourage people to register to vote. Several tents were set up in front of the East Winston Shopping Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, with volunteers waving signs and calling out to passing motorists. One table held voter information, including registration forms; another was for books about black history, social matters and more.

Frankie Gist, a community organizer, said that protest marches and events had been going well so far to raise awareness of issues affecting the black community in the wake of the death of George Floyd and other recent events.

Everyone has kept the momentum going at protest marches, Gist said, “but we can’t allow this to be the only time we come together. We have to do more than protesting. I believe in the power of protesting, but we need to do more to benefit the community, so we can help make a change in our community and our world.”

And he felt increasing awareness of the importance of voting could help, inspired in part by the fact that, although he had been an activist since the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, Gist himself — who is 24 — had never registered to vote until now.

“This made me realize, my vote does matter,” he said.

The Friday shooting of a black man in Atlanta by a police officer “shows that we cannot stop keeping the momentum up,” Gist said. “If you want change, you need to vote and help out. ... People need to let their voice be heard that way.”

Arnita Miles, another local activist, was one of several volunteers at the roadside, calling out “Register to vote here! Your vote matters!” She wore a custom-made mask with the message “#Vote,” and other volunteers also wore masks and practiced social distancing.

“If we register one person, that’s the most important thing,” she said. “We need people to be engaged and we need people to vote.”

In the end, they signed up a dozen people at Sunday’s event, and plan to carry the mission forward to help people register at other events.

As the two-hour event drew to a close, another group — a rally of cars decorated with signs decrying racism, organized by the group No Punching Bag, drove past, honking their horns in support.

Camry Wilborn, a volunteer, held a sign staying “Stop Hurting Us.” She donated books from her collection for the table of books that were being given out, and said she was collecting donations from others to keep the table going at future events.

“I decided the best way I could make an impact was to provide some books for folks,” she said. “We’ve been seeing a lot of articles about readings people can be doing outside of the protesting, and so I wanted to contribute my collection of books to folks. They’re free to black people; people of color I’m asking that they donate to one local black-led organization; and then for white allies I’m asking that they donate to two organizations to receive a book.”

After the registration event, some of the volunteers from the registration drive, including Miles, Gist, his 2-year-old son John, and others went to the recently-painted mural on the street in front of city hall. There, they lay on the concrete for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in memory of Floyd while a crowd of spectators looked on and joined in chants led by Gist. After the time was up, they got up and Gist said a prayer for God’s protection for everyone.

White House's focus on Forsyth COVID-19 cases brings attention, not surge in supplies

Having the White House’s coronavirus task force expressing concern about Forsyth County’s surge in COVID-19 cases does not signal there is a local hot spot, according to local and state health officials.

However, it does place Forsyth, Alamance, Mecklenburg, Durham, Wake, Duplin, Lee and Johnston counties in a select group of communities cited by Dr. Deborah Birx, the task force’s response coordinator.

Birx expressed her concerns June 5 to Dr. Mandy Cohen, the state’s health secretary, in a phone call that Cohen and Gov. Roy Cooper made public Monday.

“She was sharing her concerns about North Carolina’s accelerating trends in the wrong direction, which is why we need to be incredibly vigilant in our actions and we also need to be sure, as I said in my remarks, that we are ramping up testing,” Cohen said this week.

“Conversations with our federal and state partners (have) guided our thinking on which counties to partner with first.”

Other areas Birx has mentioned in the past month as sites of concern include Los Angeles, Washington,Baltimore, northern Virginia, Chicago and Minneapolis.

Unfortunately, having the attention of the White House task force does not appear to be translating into gaining additional coronavirus resources even as the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is concentrating more resources into the eight counties.

“Frankly, the numbers are changing so often; so are those needs in terms of surging resources,” Cohen said.

“So, we’re trying to build better muscle here at the state, as well as in our local communities, to make sure that we have the ability to surge resources, move them around to places that may need them.”

Surge of cases

North Carolina is becoming noted increasingly in multiple media reports for its surge of cases, along with Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.

On Friday, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its latest national and state level COVID-19 forecasts that are based on a review of 17 separate federal and university research initiatives.

“The state-level ensemble forecasts suggest that the number of new deaths over the next four weeks in Arizona, Arkansas, Hawaii, North Carolina, Utah and Vermont will likely exceed the number reported over the last four weeks” according to the CDC forecast.

According to DHHS, there were 473 deaths in North Carolina just between May 9 and June 7. As of noon Saturday, there had been 1,104 deaths statewide.

Thirteen of the forecasts “assume that existing control measures will remain in place during the prediction period, while the remaining forecasts “make different assumptions about how levels of social distancing will change in the future.”

“Forecasting teams predict numbers of deaths using different types of data (e.g., COVID-19 data, demographic data, mobility data), methods, and estimates of the impacts of interventions (e.g. social distancing, use of face coverings).

Not leveling off

The N.C. COVID-19 cases and deaths counts were 12,997 and 533, respectively, on May 8 — the start of the Phase One reopening of the state’s economy.

The cases and deaths counts were at 22,725 and 746, respectively, on May 22 — the start of the Phase Two reopening.

As of noon Saturday, the cases and deaths counts were 42,676 and 1,104, respectively.

For Forsyth, the cases counts were 369 on May 8, 894 on May 22 and 2,128 as of Saturday. The deaths counts were five on May 8, nine on May 22 and 25 as of Saturday.

Cohen said June 1 that the sharp increase in Forsyth cases is related to more testing occurring in the county and the Triad, the increase in individuals moving around more since the Phase One reopening, and “targeting areas where we are likely to see more positive cases.”

It’s been 20 days since Phase Two of reopening the state’s economy began May 22.

Cooper said state health officials say they monitor data metrics and benchmarks over a rolling 14-day period “to get a true read of what is happening.”

“The White House coronavirus task force, I’m sure they have data sets that they pull together and counties that they watch,” Cohen said.

“We were appreciative of the call to say ‘Hey, we’re concerned, here are some counties of concern you should think about.’ We were already there in terms of thinking how do we surge resources.”

Strategic monitoring

The Cooper administration is monitoring five public-health data points: number of hospitalizations; number of hospital beds, ICU beds and ventilators available; number of positive cases; percentage of positive cases; and number of individuals coming to hospital emergency rooms with COVID-19 symptoms.

The state’s upward trend in cases, hospitalizations, percentage of positive cases and deaths continues to present a challenge to Cooper and state health officials.

Cohen said DHHS reviews its COVID-19 data and those from CDC.

“Each of them sort of see the data puzzle a little bit differently, so we wanted to make sure we were incorporating what they may be seeing that maybe our data isn’t showing us,” Cohen said.

“These eight counties are really a first step, so I don’t want folks to over-read that these counties did anything wrong.

“There’s been really good and hard work going on,” Cohen said. “All it means is that we want, as a state, to be working with them in partnership to surge additional resources as we go here.”

Joshua Swift, Forsyth’s health director, said Thursday that his conversations with DHHS officials have been more about “how to be more efficient and strategic with our testing.”

Swift defined strategic as targeting areas where there is less access to testing, and finding ways to prevent exposure within communities with a high case count.

Swift stressed that no COVID-19 test is perfect, and represent just a moment-in-time, rather than a guarantee of being positive or negative.

“We have told them of our need for more testing supplies for ourselves and our partners,” Swift said.

Concern grows

Birx is not the only out-of-state health official to express concern about Forsyth’s significant uptick in COVID-19 cases.

On Friday, the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia disclosed its latest modeling, which continues to show that as communities relax social distancing — measured as increased travel to non-essential businesses — they are experiencing a rise in COVID-19 infections.

The group cited clusters of communities in North Carolina and South Carolina, such as Forsyth, “are beginning to show signs of heightened risk, increasing the researchers’ concern for a regional second wave in the Southeast.”

“We’re still monitoring Forsyth County for potential resurgence of COVID-19 over the next four weeks,” said Lauren Walens, PolicyLab’s strategic operations and communications director.

“We should start to see any impacts from the protests across the country in one to two weeks’ time.”

There are many factors may be contributing to projected increased risk for transmission in these areas, such as Winston-Salem, Charlotte, Columbia, S.C., and Greenville, S.C., said Dr. David Rubin, director of PolicyLab and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

Those factors include: the inability to lower case counts; poor vigilance among community members in masking and hygiene; inadequate protection of locations at high risk for local outbreaks, such as nursing homes and prisons; and reopening too quickly.

“There’s growing risk in Greenville and Columbia, S.C., and Charlotte and Winston Salem,” Rubin said.

“It’s these types of indicators that tell us which areas may be headed for a second wave of coronavirus cases and crisis.”

More testing

Swift said the inclusion of Forsyth among those counties listed for concern was not surprising in part because it is the state’s fourth largest county. He said the recent uptick in testing has led to an increase in cases.

“We are trying to do more testing and focus on those areas where there are gaps,” Swift said.

Swift said he is not aware of any new outbreaks among large employers, whether in Forsyth or outside the county where residents commute to work, such as the Tyson Foods facilities in Wilkesboro.

Forsyth health officials confirmed in early May there have been at least 70 local residents testing positive for COVID-19 related to Tyson.

Swift said contact tracing in Forsyth is being conducted primarily by county public health and other county government employees, along with contract employees from nonprofit Community Care of N.C.

He said there are about 100 individuals providing tracing through those groups.

“We need to reopen, but we have more possibility to catch this virus, so people need to be more vigilant when they are out in public,” Swift said.