UMATILLA COUNTY — Local residents will have some options in the coming weeks to get out of their houses during Phase 2 of the reopening and enjoy some of the things they’ve missed during the coronavirus pandemic.
One of those options will be returning to movie theaters and enjoying a film on the big screen, though viewing choices will be slim this summer.
“New releases are limited due to studio closures but the public will still see some new releases coming out from independent studios,” Mary Liberty-Traughber, public relations manager for Wildhorse Resort & Casino, said in an email. “In the meantime, we will feature returning blockbusters.”
The Cineplex at Wildhorse became one of the first — if not the very first — indoor movie theater to reopen in Oregon when the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation gave the green light to reopen the casino on May 28 and the projectors began running again that same day.
As of Tuesday, June 9, 29 Oregon counties have entered Phase 2 of reopening, which permits public spaces like movie theaters to reopen with adequate sanitation and social distancing protocols in place.
According to Liberty-Traughber, that means seats and rows at the Cineplex will be left empty between parties and movie theater staff will help manage seating to ensure there’s distance between people. It also means a reduced capacity for theaters moving forward, though Liberty-Traughber said there’s no specific cap that’s been set.
“To date, low attendance levels have allowed for plenty of room between moviegoers,” she said.
Wildhorse has committed to sanitizing the entire facility multiple times throughout the day, Liberty-Traughber said, and Cineplex areas like the theaters, box office, concessions along with items like food trays and hearing devices will be sanitized after each use. The theater is operating daily on a modified schedule of noon to 10 p.m., and will adjust its showing schedule to accommodate for the extra sanitation.
Though arcades are permitted to open at the moment, Liberty-Traughber said the Wildhorse arcade near the Cineplex remains closed for renovations and expansion projects at the facility.
The Hermiston Cinema suffered damage to its roof during a windstorm at the end of May, but owner Bruce Humphrey said the theater will be reopening in the coming weeks.
“We’d like to get back open and get our feet on the ground with the routines for sanitation and social distancing,” Humphrey said.
Humphrey said he and his staff were still figuring out how exactly the cinema will accommodate for the distancing guidelines in theaters. However they do it, what viewing options audiences will have remains to be seen.
Health risks and associated restrictions of COVID-19 have delayed production of numerous films planned for the rest of 2020, and subsequently many studios have delayed releases or directly diverted them to streaming services instead.
As a result, “Unhinged,” a thriller starring Russell Crowe scheduled for July 1, and “Tenet,” an action thriller from Christopher Nolan scheduled for July 17, are the two prominent films still scheduled for a traditional theater release this summer.
That also poses an opportunity for movie theaters like the Hermiston Cinema, which Humphrey said may feature returns to the big screen for some older releases.
The reopening of theaters also poses an opportunity to see how quickly Americans will return to previous comforts that ceased during the pandemic over fears of spreading the virus. A poll published by the Hollywood Reporter in May had only 7% of respondents say they were “very likely” to return to movie theaters within the first month of reopening.
But the coronavirus is just the latest threat to movie theaters. Humphrey noted that the industry has faced the challenge of ever-growing streaming services and dwindling theater attendance, and though it may take some time, he thinks the big screen will be attractive to those looking to finally get outside.
“A lot of people are just looking to get out of the house and do something,” he said.
Other indoor entertainment opportunities have also been given the green light to reopen.
On Monday, June 8, staff at the Desert Lanes Family Fun Center in Hermiston were excited to offer bowling and arcade games for the first time since March.
“Just like every other business, we’re happy to be reopened and moving forward now,” manager Ray Fields said.
Things looked different than they did when the center closed its doors. Some improvements, such as new lighting and tables, were cosmetic. But staff were also wearing masks, and there were new sneeze guards and social distancing markings on the floor shaped like bowling balls and pins.
Four additional employees now work each shift, including a “porter” whose job is to wipe down an arcade machine each time someone is done using it. Customers must call ahead to reserve lanes for an hour, and are spaced out every other lane. Bowling balls are kept behind the counter, to be checked out for exclusive use by one customer, and everything — balls, shoes, tables, keypads — is sanitized between customers.
“I don’t know if it makes people feel safer, but we want to show that at least we’re being proactive about their safety,” Fields said of the changes.
After Oregon’s golf courses were allowed to stay open but Washington’s were closed at the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdowns, Oregonians complained that Washington residents were crowding golf courses just over the border.
“We’re getting a lot of calls from the Tri-Cities,” Fields said. “I think we’re seeing some of what the golf courses saw.”