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‘We’re suffering in limbo’: Theater owners are getting more desperate as SBA grant portal remains closed

A vital grant program for struggling event spaces was derailed more than 10 days ago by technical glitches. Theater owners say they can’t keep waiting.

‘We’re suffering in limbo’: Theater owners are getting more desperate as SBA grant portal remains closed
[Photo: Karen Ducey/Getty Images]
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More than a year into the pandemic and almost four months after Congress authorized $16 billion in federal aid, theater owners are still unable to access a penny from the vital grant program that was meant to keep them afloat.

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The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program was supposed to open earlier this month, but it was abruptly halted by the Small Business Administration after technical difficulties arose with its online portal. The program, which authorizes grants of up to $10 million to live event spaces—including Broadway theaters, cinemas, museums, and music venues—has yet to accept a single application.

Eleven days after glitches derailed the rollout, theater owners say they’re at the end of their ropes.

“At this point the delay is devastating, as the small businesses that Congress intended to save are going under as they wait for the emergency relief,” Audrey Fix Schaefer, board member for the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), told Fast Company in an email. “More businesses are going to have to call it quits because they cannot hold out any longer, all the while $16 billion is waiting to save them.”

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NIVA, a coalition of more than 3,000 venues, was formed last year only a few weeks after COVID-19 sparked theater shutdowns across the country. Through the Save Our Stages campaign, the group lobbied lawmakers for federal aid directed specifically at the live-events industry and ultimately found bipartisan support. The SVOG program was authorized with the December stimulus package.

But the money is not doing anyone any good if no one can apply to access it. In a series of tweets last week, the SBA said it was continuing to test the applications portal and that it hoped to have it up and running by the end of the week.

Fix Schaefer said rough guesses are not enough. For far too many venues, each day that goes by is another day closer to permanent closure. “The SBA has provided no timeline or estimate of when the portal will reopen and when the desperately needed lifeline of grants will flow to save our stages,” she said. “We’re suffering in limbo.”

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Reached for comment, the SBA reiterated its goal of getting the portal back up by the end of the week.

“We know this funding is urgently needed now and are doing all we can to reopen with the greatest amount of certainty as possible,” an SBA spokesperson said. “As we’ve shared, after our vendors fixed the root cause of the initial tech issues, more in-depth risk analysis and stress tests identified other issues that impact application performance. The vendors are quickly addressing and mitigating them and working tirelessly with our team so the application portal can reopen ASAP and we can deliver this critical aid.”

The SBA says applicants will be notified in advance before the portal becomes up and running again.

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This post has been updated with the SBA’s response.

About the author

Christopher Zara is a senior staff news editor for Fast Company and obsessed with media, technology, business, culture, and theater. Before coming to FastCo News, he was a deputy editor at International Business Times, a theater critic for Newsweek, and managing editor of Show Business magazine

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