It’s been five months since Congress created a new grant program for live music venues, theaters and museums that were forced to shut their doors because of the pandemic — but none of the $16 billion available has yet been disbursed.
The Small Business Administration has said it expects the first round of grants — going to the hardest-hit businesses — will go out this week.
Administrator Isabella Guzman told lawmakers on the House Committee on Small Businesses during a hearing Wednesday that award letters have started going out.
More than 13,000 businesses have applied for grants, requesting $11 billion, she said. The SBA is still taking applications, and Guzman said she believes there will be enough funding to meet all the demand.
The team is “working really diligently” and the program is “much more complex” than others the agency has administered, Guzman added.
But Republican Rep. Roger Williams of Texas slammed the administrator for the delay and for not responding to several letters he sent her requesting updates on the program.
“It’s hard to classify the SBA’s rollout of this program under your watch as anything but a total disaster,” Williams said.
The months-long wait, made longer by technical delays, is raising anxiety for some venue owners who are desperate for aid as social distancing restrictions are lifted across the country.
Some Broadway shows, including “Hamilton,” “Wicked” and “The Lion King,” have announced they will return to the stage on September 14 — a promise sign that theaters will be able to put on a fall season.
But uncertainty remains about whether audiences will show up and smaller venues, especially, have a hard time booking future shows without knowing when or if the aid money will come in.
First to close, last to open
Soon after states and cities shut down last March, industry leaders banded together to form the National Independent Venue Association and launched a lobbying campaign known as Save Our Stages. The group now has 3,000 members.
The pressure helped create bipartisan support for an emergency grant program and a bill was introduced last summer.
But live venue owners were kept waiting until December’s relief bill. It provided $15 billion in grants for live venue operators and promoters, theaters, and some museums, zoos and aquariums. Owners were still waiting for a chance to apply for a grant when Congress passed another huge Covid relief bill in March, known as the American Rescue plan. It added $1.25 billion to the program.
The new grant can total up to $10 million or up to 45% of 2019 revenue, whichever is less. The money can be used for expenses such as payroll costs, rent, utilities and personal protective equipment — and it doesn’t have to be paid back.
Operators who have lost at least 25% of their revenue last year are eligible and the law gives priority to those who have suffered the most economic loss — starting with an exclusive 14-day period to those who lost at least 90%.
Restaurants are getting money faster
Similar emergency grants for struggling restaurants have taken less time to go out. That program, known as the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, was approved by Congress in March and began sending money out two weeks ago, marked with a visit from President Joe Biden to a taqueria in Washington, DC. About $6 billion has been awarded to date.
But the program won’t be able to meet the need. It has received more than 303,000 applications requesting about $69 billion — much more than the $28.6 billion the program was provided by Congress — and the government stopped taking applications Monday.
A portion of the funds have been set aside for the smallest restaurants and bars. Businesses owned by women, veterans, or socially and economically disadvantaged individuals will get first priority for the funds.
The Small Business Administration was tasked with establishing these two new grant programs while also administering two other key relief programs: the Paycheck Protection Program, which lends forgivable loans to small businesses, and the Economic Injury Disaster Loans, which makes longer-term, low-interest loans.
The former is now closed to new applicants but the latter is ongoing.
This story has been updated with Administrator Isabella Guzman’s testimony before Congress.