Together, Alone: The Car as Shelter in the Pandemic

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The role of the automobile has been reinvented in the coronavirus era. Once just a way of getting from one place to another, the car has been turned into a mini-shelter on wheels, safe from contamination, a cocoon that allows its occupants to be inside and outside at the same time.

It took a pandemic to give the automobile its new role. When people pack up their families and friends, they can still adhere to social distancing rules. They remain under a roof, within closed doors, sealed off and separated from the rest of their fellow human beings.

Mobile safe distancing has generated a new way of life — a society on wheels.

ImageGraduates are now celebrating with drive-through ceremonies. In Odessa, Texas, teachers and family members came out to cheer the milestone at Ratliff Stadium.
Graduates are now celebrating with drive-through ceremonies. In Odessa, Texas, teachers and family members came out to cheer the milestone at Ratliff Stadium.Credit…Ben Powell/Odessa American, via Associated Press

The trend has transformed communities and businesses. Drive-in theaters are experiencing renewed interest. People picnic from sedans and pickup trucks. Birthdays, baby showers and graduations are celebrated by waving through windows.

Gossip is conducted on roadsides. Drivers who would normally speed by each other in isolation are bringing their cars to a standstill, using them for kaffeeklatsches.

“They are like the ultimate P.P.E. — you can really seal yourself into them,” said Peter D. Norton, an associate professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who studies the history of technology.


Lily Haines, left, celebrated her 16th birthday from her apartment balcony in Los Angeles as friends drove by with signs and balloons.Credit…Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

There are curbside pickups of groceries, hardware and toilet paper. Moviegoers starved for a little fresh air can hitch up to an old-fashioned listening device at a newly refurbished drive-in theater. Laundromats are taking in bundles handed off through car windows.


An artist performing at the newly opened drive-in theater in Oberhausen, Germany.Credit…Friedemann Vogel/EPA, via Shutterstock

Do the new pandemic rules mean this is a turning point in society’s relationship with the automobile, or just an extension of it?

“I think there are some continuities here,” Dr. Norton said, noting that cars have long been thought of as a way to shield ourselves from a hostile world.

“There is the old cliché of the white suburbanite in what they think of as a dangerous neighborhood: They roll up their windows and lock their doors,” he said.


A drive-by visit with the Easter bunny at the Circle Drive-In in Dickson City, Pa.Credit…Christopher Dolan/The Times-Tribune, via Associated Press

“In most cases, it is a response to a perceived danger,” he said. But there are also troubling implications, he added. One is that “safety is something we expect you to buy in the form of an expensive machine that is not sustainable and not affordable to everyone.”

While much of life has been reimagined online, from conference calls to Zoom video chats with grandparents, vehicles have allowed people to trim several degrees from that virtual separation.

Cars have allowed their owners to widen their worlds. Quarantine zones can be uprooted from the four walls of a home and transplanted within the doors of a car.


Concertgoers applauding D.J. Frans Zimmer, who is better known as Alle Farben, in Bonn, Germany.Credit…Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

That means people can have more contact — but not too much more. That slight relaxation of the distancing, while still protective, has been essential to small businesses that rely on cultivating personal relationships with clients.

Christine Pontiff, the owner of Alternatives Hair Salon in Lafayette, La., had built up a roster of loyal customers over her three decades in business. When the pandemic hit, she was unable to do hair on the premises, so she mixed custom potions for drive-up customers after taking a look at recent photographs of them.

“We would have them order the color kit and call 10 to 15 minutes ahead of time, so we could have it mixed, and we run out and give it to them with instructions,” she said.

“They drove up with masks and we had masks and gloves,” she said. “There were no mishaps.”


Even family portrait photo sessions, like this one in Las Vegas, are being conducted by car.Credit…Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Events normally held in buildings have now been shifted to the great outdoors. That is what happened at a fair hosted by the Artists Association of Nantucket in Massachusetts, where a 120-foot-long parking lot was reimagined as a gallery this month.

It was watercolors through windows, art on asphalt. The rule still was look, don’t touch, but thanks to their cars, dozens of art lovers and potential buyers got close enough. They paused, idled and inched along in low gear through the drive-by collection of work. (Ceramics were not displayed because of the risks of an errant bump.)

“One of the difficulties is, with art anyway, people like to see it,” Robert Frazier, the association’s artistic director, said. “They have to get a visual feel.”

Sales took place later, online.


Sabina Streeter, an artist, preparing for a drive-by exhibition of works by 52 artists on the South Fork of Long Island.Credit…Bryan Derballa for The New York Times

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued precautions to take while traveling and strict guidelines on social distancing and hand washing. For essential errands, it suggests drive-through services at banks and pharmacies and curbside pickups of food and supplies.

Large gatherings are not permitted under stay-at-home orders in many states and countries, but some churches have been able to conduct services that cater to worshipers in their cars. The Genoa Baptist Church in Westerville, Ohio, calls it “Come as you are, but stay in your car.”


Archbishop Francois Touvet at France’s first drive-in Mass in Chalons-en-Champagne.Credit…Pascal Rossignol/Reuters

The church offers at least two avenues for worshipers — they can stream the service online or drive up and park.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated May 20, 2020

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      Over 38 million people have filed for unemployment since March. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?

      There is an uptick in people reporting symptoms of chilblains, which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another symptom of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.

“Is anyone here today for the very first time, will you toot your horn?” the pastor, Frank Carl, said during a May 17 sermon. He was speaking from a scissor-lift platform customarily used by construction workers to tower over the parking lot.

A few car horns sounded.

“Now Genoa, let’s make them feel welcome!” he said, and the rest of the faithful pressed their car horns in unison.


Congregants have turned to their cars to celebrate their faith, like these worshipers at a drive-in Easter service at the Living Word Church in Mesa, Ariz.Credit…Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

In an interview, Pastor Carl said he started delivering parking lot sermons on March 15, and was considering adding a fourth Sunday sermon because they have become so popular. The parking lot holds 600 cars, he said, and sometimes there are more spilling over onto the street.

“For families with younger children, they feel like they have been out of their house,” he said. “They feel like they have gone somewhere, even though they can’t get out and mingle.”

“Sometimes there are cars parked around the building where they can’t even see me but they can hear it,” he said. “People come together, but separate, in cars. There is an emotional and social element that is being filled this way.”


Friends and family at the wedding ceremony of Bri Houk and Lindsey Leaverton at Doc’s Drive-In Theater in Buda, Texas.Credit…Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times