Theater Covid relief program opens Monday after two-week delay

The Anthem, a music venue in Washington, DC, closed for the pandemic in March 2020 and has not yet reopened. By Katie Lobosco, CNN

(CNN) -- The Small Business Administration will make a second attempt to open a federal emergency grant program for theaters and live music venues Monday, more than two weeks after the initial launch failed due to technical issues.

The funding for what's known as the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program was approved by Congress in December as part of a broad $900 billion Covid relief package.

Many potential applicants spent hours trying to apply to the program when it first opened on April 8. The agency took the portal offline before the end of the day and did not accept any applications, leaving people in the dark about when it would reopen until Thursday.

The Small Business Administration announced late Thursday that it had "completed rigorous testing" and would reopen the application portal on Saturday, but then pushed the date to Monday after many businesses complained about the challenges of having to apply on a weekend. The grants will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, raising anxiety for some venue owners -- many of whom are desperate for aid.

"Simply put, this is emergency relief that can't come too soon," Audrey Fix Schaefer, a board member for the National Independent Venue Association, said in a statement.

"Every single day that passes small business are receiving eviction notices, all the while $16 billion has been waiting for them," added Schaefer, who is also the communications director for a group of venues in Washington, DC, including The Anthem.

First to close, last to open

The Small Business Administration was tasked with establishing the new $16 billion grant program 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.

Many live venues are also eligible for those other programs, though the Paycheck Protection Program loans were meant to last only a few months. (The opening of that program last year was also marred by technical glitches amid high demand.)

Those who receive a grant from the Shuttered Venue Operators program could receive a larger sum than under Paycheck Protection and, crucially, won't have to pay it back.

The new grant can total up to $10 million or up to 45% of their 2019 revenue per eligible business, whichever is less. The money can be used for expenses such as payroll costs, rent, utilities and personal protective equipment.

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%.

The Small Business Administration is also charged with running a new $29 billion grant program for struggling restaurants, which was included in the American Rescue plan approved by Congress in March. The agency has said it could launch that application process this month, too, but has yet to set a date.

A long wait for relief despite bipartisan support

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. A bill was introduced in the summer by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York was a big advocate and could be spotted wearing a "Save Our Stages" mask on Capitol Hill.

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 and allowed them to apply for a second loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, a separate federal aid program for small businesses.

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