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Shuttered Venues Still Waiting For Government Aid Announced In December

The State Theatre in Boyertown, Penn. photographed on Jan. 4, 2021. In April, the U.S. Small Business Administration had a troubled start to its Small Venue Operators Grant program.
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The State Theatre in Boyertown, Penn. photographed on Jan. 4, 2021. In April, the U.S. Small Business Administration had a troubled start to its Small Venue Operators Grant program.

Liz Tallent was by her computer, ready. She's the marketing and special events director at The Orange Peel in Asheville, N.C., a 1,050-cap venue that has hosted everyone from songwriter Nick Lowe, to Sublime cover band Badfish, to rapper Danny Brown. Like every other music venue, The Orange Peel was hit hard by the pandemic shut downs. Distanced indoor events would barely break even, and because of how the space is set up, there hasn't been a real way to do outdoor events, either.

On April 8, the Small Business Administration (SBA) began accepting applications for its Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG), a $16 billion program set up by the SBA to help struggling music venues, live event spaces, theaters, museums and more. It was signed into law in December as a part of President Trump's coronavirus recovery plan, and it's the first time the SBA has done anything like this. And it showed.

After spending weeks collecting documents and filling out forms, Tallent and her colleagues, all situated at separate computers, were set. Noon came and "everybody was just trying, trying, trying," said Tallent. Nothing worked. Tallent is a member of the National Independent Venue Association – a group that formed in the midst of the pandemic to lobby for aid – and reached out to other venue owners. They said they were having trouble, too. Tallent says she spent seven hours trying to apply for an SVOG before giving up.

That night on Twitter, the SBA announced they were having technical issues and would shut everything down. Now, the SBA says they are aiming to open the portal by the end of this week.

Earlier this week,dozens of congressional members sent a letter to the SBA urging them the importance of getting the program up and running.

"With each passing day, more independent businesses are forced to shutter permanently or file for bankruptcy," the letter reads.

"Landlords and banks are no longer permitting deferrals and are pressing for immediate payment of past due accounts; businesses are receiving eviction notices; mom-and-pop businesses are being forced to sell."

"We don't know what to tell our creditors," says Bert Guerra, the co-owner of Cine El Rey in McAllen, Texas. When the April date was announced, Guerra told his creditors that money was on the way and that Cine El Rey was the poster child for the exact types of venues the SVOG is supposed to help.

Cine El Rey is a renovated movie theater that holds concerts, comedy shows, wrestling matches and more. It's a nationally recognized historic place and it's served its border town community since the 1940s – the type of place where families take their kids, and then years later those kids take their own kids. It also has deep ties to Mexican-American history, and as a cultural hub for an area that, Guerra says, is often misunderstood.

"The theater's not just an entertainment venue," he said. "It's rooted in the truth of our area. So I feel very responsible for preserving that truth."

The SBA set the grant program up so that venues who lost the most should be able to get first crack at this allotment of money as a way to help the most vulnerable. But delays like this end up making everything harder for those very venues. I asked Guerra how much time he had left to hang on.

"Six weeks," he said.

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Rose Friedman is an Associate Editor for NPR's Arts, Books & Culture desk. She edits radio pieces on a range of subjects, including books, pop culture, fine arts, theater, obituaries and the occasional Harry Potter-check-in. She is also co-creator of NPR's annual Book Concierge and the podcast recommendation site In addition, Rose has edited commentaries for the network, as well as regular features like This Week's Must Read on All Things Considered.
Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.