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Shuttered theaters rush to tap $16 billion in aid — and face tech glitches

Devastated by the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered theaters and concert halls last March, cash-strapped performing arts groups has been waiting for more than three months to get the chance to apply for over $16 billion in grants. On Thursday, that lifeline finally arrived — although not without hitches. 

The Small Business Administration (SBA) on Thursday opened a portal at noon Eastern time for theatrical businesses to apply for aid, but applicants reported problems accessing the site and uploading documents. The glitch added to the frustrations of arts organizations that have been waiting for the grants since the money was first authorized in December under a spending bill signed by former President Donald Trump. 

The SBA site issues come after thousands of theaters and other groups have essentially been operating without any event revenue since last spring. For financially struggling venue operators that have been waiting since December to apply for a grant, the malfunctioning portal proved a disappointing kickoff to a program that offered hope.

“It is clearly frustrating, as most of us have been preparing for this moment now for 2+ months,” noted Alex Crothers, whose Vermont-based Higher Ground performing arts venue hosted the likes of Phish and Grace Potter before the pandemic, in an email to CBS MoneyWatch. “There are a lot of people hitting refresh on their browsers right now.”

The SBA tweeted that it is “experiencing a technical issue with the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant application portal and are working as fast as possible to address it.” The agency didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment. 

The experience is also frustrating because the program operates on a first-come, first-out basis. Given the size and dire financial state of the performing arts industry, there are concerns the program won’t be able to meet the needs of all applicants. 

The program is prioritizing arts groups that have suffered the biggest losses of income during the pandemic. During the program’s first 14 days, grants will be provided to venues that experienced at least a 90% loss of revenue between April and December 2020 due to the virus. The second two weeks of the program will provide aid for organizations with revenue losses of at least 70%. After that, the SBA will provide grants to groups with at least 25% revenue loss between comparable quarters in 2019 and 2020. 

Last to reopen?

Performing arts groups may be the last organizations to reopen around the U.S. given concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in indoor locations where people sit shoulder-to-shoulder. While some venues may reopen later this year, they could have limited seating. Such was the case with the first Broadway theater to reopen this month — only one of every 10 seats was allowed to be filled.

Even as other businesses regain their footing, the performing arts industry continues to struggle with shuttered businesses and high rates of joblessness. In New York City, for example, the sector is the only one where employment remains at less than half of its pre-pandemic levels, according to a February study from New York State’s comptroller.

Against that bleak backdrop, the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) portal opened with high expectations from industry participants — especially given the amount of time the SBA had to design and test the application process. Some would-be applicants said that while they understand the site might be overwhelmed with applicants, they’re still frustrated by the glitches.

As for Crothers of Higher Ground, he said that receiving a grant will allow his organization to pay off “accrued debts, rebuild staff, update and repair maintenance projects to be COVID-ready, and start producing a few shows again.”

Said Crothers, “The SVOG is the difference between our venues surviving and thriving as we emerge from the pandemic versus them closing.”

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