Local venues see a glimmer of hope now that President Donald Trump signed a bipartisan pandemic relief package.
Theatres and music halls across the country have lost up to 80 percent of expected revenue as they kept doors shut through nearly 10 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stages have remained silent since Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered statewide shutdowns in mid-March. That, too, is performances houses cut or furloughed nearly their entire staffs.
Congress passed a $900 billion pandemic relief package that featured several changes to the Paycheck Protection Program, and created a “second draw” PPP for small businesses who exhausted their initial loan.
Congress also made changes to other programs – including Economic Injury Disaster Loans, the Employee Retention Tax Credit, a Venue Grant program and SBA loan programs –that will benefit small businesses. Other changes impact eligibility for initial PPP loans, the loan forgiveness process and the tax treatment of PPP loans.
The proposed law would create a $15 billion grant program eligible live venue operators, promoters, theatrical producers, live performing arts organization operators, museum operators, and talent representatives who have experienced at least a 25 percent drop in revenue.
Grants are equal to the lesser of $10 million or 45 percent of gross earned revenue in 2019. Grants must be used for specified expenses such as payroll costs, rent, utilities, and personal protective equipment.
“It’s not quite a light, more like a reflection,” said Jon Elbaum, executive director of Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. The storied performance house has kept the lights on, providing educational programs and a stage for musical acts in need of a place to record. Artists like local duo The Sea, The Sea used the stage recently to record. But, Elbaum estimates Troy Music Hall has lost 80 percent of its revenue this year. He’ll still welcome help from Washington.
He’s not alone.
“First, the entire bill of support is a welcome relief for the country and the community,” Proctors CEO Philip Morris said in a statement. 2020 was to be a banner year for a Proctors Collaborative that witnessed the long-awaited opening of Universal Preservation Hall and the anticipated reopening of a relocated Capital Repertory Theatre.
The virus’ clampdown has choked the economy, from the businesses dependent upon ticket sales to the government bodies who rely on the tax collected from them.
New York’s municipalities collected nearly $17 billion in sales tax revenue last year. That amounts to 9.7 percent of all local government revenue, according to a comprehensive report on local sales tax released in October by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
“COVID-19 has decimated local sales tax revenue this year, blowing holes in the budgets of municipalities across New York State,” DiNapoli said. “As we work to rebuild our economy, we must also help repair the damage that has already been inflicted.”
The state is facing an estimated $14.5 billion revenue shortfall. That figure was also reported in October, despite the governor’s tiered reopening plan that helped industries such as construction and retail limp back to life. But, while shopping malls were allowed to welcome shoppers back in, theatres have remained closed since St. Patrick’s Day weekend.
“Just as our Main Street small businesses can’t rebuild alone, our local governments don’t have the means to do this themselves. Direct aid from the federal government is needed to help our communities recover,” said DiNapoli.
Motion picture theatre operators, too, would be eligible to receive aid, though likely not the large chains like Regal. Regal’s parent company, British-based Cineworld, cited $1.6 billion in losses when it closed more than 500 of its houses in October. In New York, cinema houses were lumped in with theatres and left closed while other industries reopened. That led Cineworld to throw barbs towards Cuomo’s shutdown practices despite the industry’s willingness to reopen at reduced capacity.
The National Association of Theater Owners of New York State lobbied over the summer its plan to bring back customers. Crowds reduced by half, along with improved air flow systems and cleaning regimens that resembled those of opened shopping malls. Once Regal closed its doors, Albany allowed New York movie theaters to open.
But, reduced capacities don’t work with play houses and live music venues. Many of the productions that cross the stages at Proctors, the Palace and Troy Music Hall depend on selling 50 to 90 percent of available seats.
“Proctors will only survive in a vibrant economy once the fear of COVID has passed. The section aimed at live entertainment is an acknowledgment of the disastrous impact COVID and its related closures has meant for artists, actors, designers, stagehands and facilities like Proctors, theRep and UPH,” Morris said. “This may be the lift we need to get to a reopening.”
Prior to the pandemic, Proctors boasted a $25 million budget to cover its many stages. Those stages employed a collective staff of 200 employees who catered to 700,000 patrons each year. In March, when local leaders struggled with understanding the scope of the virus — Albany canceled its St. Patrick’s Day parade while restaurants packed in revelers — local theatres closed their doors and cut or furloughed up to 90 percent of their staff.
Trump pushed the relief package back on Congress to make changes, including a raise to individual stimulus payments from $600 to $2,000. Whether he will veto the bill entirely remains to be seen. The legislation’s inclusion of a Save Our Stages Act both Elbaum and Morris lobbied for with U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer leaves hope that help is coming soon.
Saratoga Performing Arts Center president and CEO Elizabeth Sobol said she was “enormously grateful” that the act passed Congress as she awaited more details.
“It will be a lifeline for one of the hardest hit industries and, as New Yorkers, we can all be proud and deeply appreciative of the support from our congressional leaders who helped shepherd through this critical legislation,” Sobol said. “I came from the world of artist management and my former colleagues have been utterly devastated by the effects of COVID. Save Our Stages helps these amazing people who are essential to the functioning of the concert world. Today, I breathe a sigh of relief for them.”