It’s hard to imagine a better way to encourage people to stay 6 feet apart than to offer them $500 checks on a first-come, first-served basis.

Nobody would line up for that, right?

But although the crowd that gathered Thursday afternoon outside Old West Federal Credit Union in Baker City — a scene replicated in communities across Oregon, until the money ran out Friday — all but demands a sarcastic response, the situation isn’t especially amusing.

The Oregon Legislature in July allocated $35 million from the state’s federal COVID-19 aid to distribute to residents who have suffered financial hardships due to the state’s restrictions designed to reduce the spread of the virus. To be eligible for a one-time $500 payment, people must, among other criteria, have earned less than $4,000 per month before the pandemic started, be 18 or older and able to prove their identity, and have unemployment benefits still pending. Some people who haven’t applied for unemployment, or who were denied, might also qualify.

The state’s decision to disburse the $35 million in a fashion reminiscent of a promotion by a minor league baseball team stems from its own failures to process unemployment claims during the pandemic. The federal government gave Oregon $85 million to modernize its computers. That was in 2009. Yet the state has spent almost none of the money. And the Employment Department’s computers have performed like, well, like computers that haven’t been modernized.

The people who have received a $500 check need the money, to be sure. And those who are still waiting for unemployment checks definitely deserve it.

But it’s hard to believe there wasn’t a method to distribute the money that didn’t force people to stand in lines for hours. That’s just the sort of thing state officials have been telling us not to do.

— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

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