To say it’s been a bad 12 months for movie theater owners is an understatement akin to noting that it’s been a good year for the makers of disposable face masks.

COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have closed or greatly limited attendance at theaters.

And even if there were no limits on audiences, film companies have postponed most new releases, so one of the main attractions of the experience doesn’t exist.

Restaurants have suffered immensely, too — but at least they have food to serve.

Baker County’s only moviehouse, the historic Eltrym Theater in Baker City, reopened in early March after being closed for most of the previous year, but with occupancy limits.

A bill introduced recently in the Oregon Legislature would help these ailing businesses, and lawmakers should make it a priority for passage.

House Bill 3376, introduced March 16 by Rep. Rob Nosse, a Democrat from Portland, would give $8.7 million to the Oregon Business Development Department to disburse grants to indoor movie theaters of up to $50,000 per business, plus $10,000 for each screen for theaters with more than two screens.

(The Eltrym has three screens.)

Although as introduced the bill would make eligible all theaters, including large national chains such as Cinemark and Regal, Nosse said his bill could be amended to “just focus on theaters that are small and primarily locally owned.”

Regardless of the details, the $8.7 million price tag is a pittance compared with the $2.6 billion Oregon will receive through the American Rescue Plan Act, the COVID-19 relief package President Joe Biden signed earlier this month.

Terry McQuisten, who with her husband, Dan, owns the Eltrym, submitted written comments in support of House Bill 3376.

Terry McQuisten writes eloquently of the “gaping debt wound” her business has sustained, and the unique nature of theaters, which, “unlike a lot of businesses, have really had no viable option to adapt to the pandemic and continue operating.”

McQuisten is optimistic, but also realistic.

“We are determined to survive this pandemic,” she wrote to the Legislature. “It has been a year, though, and we are now beginning to make payments on (loans). In effect, we’ve taken out loans to pay loans. All the while, we’ve been doing our best to adapt to provide a safe environment for our guests by investing in air scrubbers for our HVAC and devoting more staff time to cleaning.”

McQuisten writes that theaters play a role in “keeping communities livable, vibrant and connected.”

That’s especially true in rural areas such as Baker County, where the Eltrym’s is the only bright marquee still shining.

Losing another business, and the jobs it provides, would be a blow to Baker City and Baker County.

But the Eltrym is also an entertainment and cultural fixture, and the void its absence would create quite likely would not be filled.

— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

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