[UPDATE 6/15/21]: As venues across the country begin to open their doors to larger and larger audiences, many small business owners are still reckoning with the financial wrath of the pandemic. In December 2020, Congress approved the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant (SVOG) program, securing $16.1 billion in desperately needed financial aid for thousands of business owners. Over six months after the SVOG program was approved, and two months since applications opened, the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) reports that less than one percent of applicants have received any funding.
The continuously delayed rollout of SVOG funding has been a continued issue for the Small Business Administration. After several false starts and technical snafus, applications finally opened April 26th, and of the estimated 4,910 small business owners who qualified for the first round of funding only 90 have been awarded grants as of June 9th, per the SBA.
On Tuesday, a bipartisan coalition of Senators led by the initial sponsors of the SVOG program (then known as the Save Our Stages Act) Amy Klobuchar (D-MD), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) sent a letter to SBA Administrator Isabella Guzman urging drastic improvements in the agency’s handling of the grant application process.
The letter read, in part,
The Save Our Stages Act, now the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program, was created to prevent widespread closures of venues that been devastated by the loss of revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic…. It has been nearly 6 months since Congress passed the Save Our Stages Act, nearly 2 months since the second launch of the program, and 51 days since the Small Business Administration began receiving applications. We urge you to immediately take steps to ensure the funds are distributed to qualified applicants.
Additionally, the Senators requested that the SBA increase transparency by releasing accurate figures on the number of grants approved, the number dispersed, the amount dispersed, what the SBA is doing to update applicants on their process, and how the administration is avoiding erroneously denying claims, amongst other things. The full letter is available to read here.
[UPDATE 6/11/21]: It’s been nearly six months since the $16.1 billion Shuttered Venues Operators Grant (SVOG) program was signed into law, but the majority of qualifying venues are still awaiting aid.
Repeated errors, tech hangups, and other delays have left qualifying movie theaters, live venue operators and promoters, talent representatives, and performing arts organizations—the businesses at the greatest risk of closure due to the pandemic—hanging on by a thread.
According to a press release circulated by the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), more than 4,910 small business owners in the SVOG program’s first priority period and an additional 10,000 businesses in the second and third priority periods have still not received the allotted funds.
As of June 9th, the SBA reported that it had awarded a total of 90 grants.
The lack of progress by the SBA in disbursing the allotted funds has prompted representatives from the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP), the League of Historic American Theatres, the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), National Independent Talent Organization (NITO), Performing Arts Managers and Agents Coalition (PAMAC), and the Performing Arts Alliance to issue yet another S.O.S. call to the SBA and its administrator, Isabel Guzman.
As the coalition of shuttered venue operators noted in a press release, “If every one of the 500 reviewers assigned to the program reviewed just one application per day since the application portal opened, approximately 14,000 applications submitted could have been fully processed by now.”
“We couldn’t be more grateful that Congress saw fit to provide $16 billion to Save Our Stages, but this untenable wait for the emergency relief has been torturous and damaging to our industry, our employees, and our communities,” said NIVA executive director Rev. Moose. “With the changes made by the White House and our Congressional Champions, we are hopeful that the SBA will award the grant funds without any further delay.”
“The inability of the SBA to release legislated funds designated for those eligible for the Shuttered Venues Operator Grants, has jeopardized the careers and livelihoods of thousands of workers: musicians, their reps, promoters, stagehands, venue staff, ad infinitum, and jeopardized the very fabric of culture that is the basis of good community living. We are only asking for the opportunity to resume our viable and vital businesses and restaff our offices to begin competing with the multinationals who have seemingly unlimited funds and power,” said NITO president, Frank Riley.
[UPDATE 6/1/21]: Five months after the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant (SVOG) program was passed by Congress, the first applicants received notifications that their requests for funds were approved.
Confirmed by the National Independent Venue Association—who lobbied nine months for the passage of the previously-named Save Our Stages Act—this development marks the latest step for independent venue owners across the country as they continue to fight for much-needed federal aid.
Per NIVA, the first reports of approved applications began to trickle in last Friday. No exact numbers were confirmed, and NIVA only announced that “several” members had received confirmation of approved applications, with Rolling Stone only reporting a “few” approvals.
Nevertheless, this comes as the latest step in a process of false starts, technical errors, and more that has lasted well over a year.
“The situation was dire, and our research showed 90 percent of independent venues would be shuttered forever without this relief,” Rev. Moose, executive director of NIVA, said in a statement.
“Together with 230 bipartisan cosponsors in the House and Senate, our Congressional champions made it possible for us to once again be the magnet for commerce and renewal in our neighborhoods, and a crucial component to bring back jobs, live entertainment, and tourism.”
Those who have had their applications approved still have not received their money, and there is still no concrete answer from the Small Business Administration on when funding will arrive. While a select few have had their applications approved, many others continue to writhe in anxiety as they await confirmation that the SBA has received their application. A representative for the SBA told Rolling Stone that it would be “ramping up the notification rate over the coming days.
“Per the federal grant process, once approved applicants receive the notice of award, they must return signed documentation acknowledging acceptance,” the agency added in a statement to Rolling Stone. “Upon the SBA receiving the required signed documentation, funds will be disbursed as quickly as possible to get our live entertainment venues back on track.”
On Wednesday, SBA director Isabella Guzman testified Wednesday at a government hearing entitled “The Pandemic Response and the Small Business Economy: An Update from the U.S. Small Business Administration”, answering questions about the delay in pandemic relief. Guzman told the Senate that the SBA had begun sending out approvals and funding that week, noting the administration had received around 13,000 applications for $11 billion in aid.
“With the shuttered venues we encouraged everyone to apply up front. We have a sizable group in both the first priority, second and third priority. We are processing those applications as quickly as possible,” Guzman said at the hearing. “It’s a very complex program by statute with various types of entities which has created various eligibility requirements along the way and requires intensive applicant by applicant review. We have started awarding funds, we’ve been in communication with stakeholders … We are still in the process of reviewing.”
[H/T Rolling Stone]
[5/25/21]: Five months after the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant program—formerly known as the Save Our Stages Act—was approved by Congress, and one month after those applications finally opened, Variety has reported that not one dollar of the approved $16 billion in relief has been distributed. The agency in charge of the allocation of funds, the Small Business Administration, blames a series of technical difficulties.
After a $900 billion relief package was passed by both Houses of Congress and signed into law by former President Donald Trump in December 2020, independent venue owners were able to breathe a collective sigh of relief. The eight-month battle to secure financial relief for shuttered venues across the country had finally come to an end. Unfortunately, this merely began another chapter in the ongoing fight to save the live events industry.
Nearly four months after the funding was approved for distribution, SVOG applications finally opened on April 8th. After over a year of venue owners being forced to stitch together operating costs from PPP loans, personal savings, or simply accruing more and more debt, the sheer volume of users attempting to apply for economic relief overloaded the SBA’s website almost immediately. The government agency promised a swift resolution of the issue, but two weeks later business owners were still unable to access applications.
Finally, the process opened on April 26th and—despite some lingering technical difficulties—allowed many to submit applications. Fast forward a month later, and many applicants complain to Variety and other outlets that not only have they not received any desperately-needed economic assistance, their application has not even been processed yet.
“The SBA opened the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) applications one month ago today,” one venue owner told Variety. “They haven’t processed one application yet. And this morning, the SBA sent out emails to SVOG applicants, including me, saying, ‘Our records indicate you have started an application that has not been completed or submitted.’ My application has shown as ‘Submitted’ on the SBA’s web portal, with zero ‘Action Items’ since April 26th.”
On the government level, the buck appears to pass from one agency to another, from one spokesperson to the next. The SBA had claimed that it hoped to begin financial distribution last week, and a representative for the agency confirmed to Variety that numerous technical difficulties were at fault for the delay.
“That’s true; the SBA is committed to quickly and efficiently delivering this pandemic relief to help our theatres, music venues, and more get the help they need,” the representative said. “While there continues to be some fine-tuning of technical components of the program, we expect SVOG Priority 1 (90% revenue loss) awards to tentatively begin next week, kicking off a 14-day priority period. We will then move on to begin processing Priority 2 awards.”
As venue owners continue to wait for their SVOG payments, the comparisons to other industries in need are more than a little disheartening. At the onset of the pandemic, restaurant owners across the country saw their immediate needs met by PPP loans, even as many were able to remain open for carryout and deliver services. While some venues across the country are finally beginning to open their doors, it still comes after a prolonged period of remaining indefinitely closed.
“This emergency relief can’t come soon enough for those on the precipice of going under,” said Audrey Fix Shaefer of the National Independent Venue Association. “We’ll be very grateful when the money is distributed as Congress intended. It’s been very hard to hold on, but even tougher to plan for reopening without the money to hire back staff, rent venues and secure acts with deposits. It will be incredible when the $16 billion Congress earmarked to save our stages becomes a reality.”