It's been a year since Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota teamed up with Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas on a proposal to save entertainment venues that were being flattened by the pandemic.
A little over six months ago that bill became part of a larger COVID relief package with strong bipartisan support, earmarking $16 billion to help independent theaters, stages, live music halls and other venues. Organizations like the Minnesota Independent Venue Alliance (MNIVA), which had formed to lobby for the aid, were jubilant. The Small Business Administration (SBA) was to administer grants that would provide six months of financial support to carry expenses, pay employees and entertainers and generally throw a lifeline to venues that otherwise might have failed.
Success story, right? Not so fast.
Bureaucratic slowdowns have delayed the funds to the point that businesses are closing permanently or seeking the protection of bankruptcy reorganization.
The venue alliance now says that the targeted businesses have yet to receive one dollar of support, or even a notice that their applications have been approved. That has left more than 100 theaters, concert halls, nightclubs and other venues across the state in a dangerous limbo, as bills mount. The delays are now holding up plans to reopen, even though mask mandates have mostly ended and other pandemic-related restrictions lifted.
Ward Johnson, co-owner of the Parkway Theater in south Minneapolis, told the Star Tribune that "we made a lot of plans based on the assumption we'd be getting the [grant]." That included rehiring employees and booking events for fall. "The longer it takes, the more concerned we've become about the finances," Johnson said.
Earlier this week, Klobuchar and Cornyn teamed up again, this time for the less pleasant task of writing a blistering letter to the SBA. "The Save Our Stages Act … was created to prevent widespread closures of venues devastated by the loss of revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic … we urge you to take immediate action to ensure that the relief reaches eligible applicants without further delay," the two wrote. "Bureaucratic process cannot stand in the way of getting these desperately needed funds out the door."
The letter was co-signed by more than half the Senate, everyone from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the left to Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio on the right.
That's because states across the country are being affected by these holdups, which Klobuchar said in a statement can be attributed partly to unnecessarily strict compliance. Rightly, Klobuchar, Cornyn and other senators are demanding detailed data from the agency that should provide some answers and spur the issuance of funds.
The MNIVA has requested aid from the state Legislature as well. But that, too, is tied up in delays, this time over ongoing state budget talks that have already run into overtime.
Promises of help are great, but they don't pay the utility bills, overdue rent or performers' salaries. Entertainment venues were unable to open for much of the past year. Instead, they did what was asked and shut down.
Let's not let the damage done become a death blow.