Independent Venues Left in the Lurch as SBA Website Remains Broken

By Jem Aswad

Popular on Variety

After months of lobbying and public awareness campaigns, the #SaveOurStages act was passed into law on Dec. 27, promising that small venues and theaters across the U.S. would receive relief totaling $16 billion as part of the larger stimulus plan.

But last Thursday, when the website through which venues could apply for relief finally opened — it  immediately crashed. The Small Business Administration, which suffered similar problems with the first stimulus plan went into effect, has shut down the portal and given no update on when it might open again.

Venues, which have been hanging by a thread waiting for relief, have to find a way to hang on even longer.

A rep for the SBA wrote to Variety on Monday: “To confirm, upon launching the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant application portal on April 8, technical issues arose despite multiple successful tests of the application process. After working with our vendors to address the issues as quickly as possible, the SBA determined at approximately 4:15 p.m. EDT to shut down the portal to ensure fair and equal access once reopened since this is first come first serve. This decision was not made lightly as we understand the need to get relief quickly to this hard-hit industry.

“Entities can still register in the portal and the SBA will share updates in collaboration with industry associations as well as via social media, direct e-communication with SVOG registrants, and the dedicated SVOG website https://www.sba.gov/svogrant as they come available. Also, we will once again share advance notice of the time and date for the reopening of the SVOG application portal so entities can be appropriately prepared.

“At this time, it will remain temporarily suspended. We will continue to keep the public informed via media and digital outreach, including Twitter.”

The National Independent Venues Association, which has been leading the charge for relief for more than a year, said in a statement: “We realize this is an enormous undertaking for the SBA and we appreciate everything the agency is doing to ensure this program is administered as Congress intended as expeditiously as possible. The opening can’t come soon enough. The fate of our industry’s survival is dependent on it. To say we have been anxiously awaiting the day we when can apply for this emergency relief is an understatement.”

It would seem logical for the SBA to stagger the application process following the protocols set by Save Our Stages, whereby venues that have suffered 90% revenue loss can apply for the first two weeks, following a similar schedule for venues that have lost 70% and then 25% of their revenue.

“This is an emergency situation: the law passed on Dec. 27,” said Audrey Fix Schaefer, a rep for NIVA. “Yes, we understand that the process takes time and we want them to be successful, but we need them to do it now.”

In announcing the initial shutdown, the SBA wrote: “After working with our vendors to address them as quickly as possible, the SBA temporarily suspended the portal and will re-open it as soon as possible to ensure all applicants have fair and equal access,” the agency said in a statement. “This decision was not made lightly as we understand the need to ensure critical assistance gets to you as swiftly as possible.”

The Save Our Stages bill allows applicable businesses and institutions to apply for grants from the Small Business Administration to cover six months of payroll and costs including rent, utilities and maintenance. Applicants must have lost at least 25 percent of their annual revenue to qualify, and those have lost more than 90 percent will be able to apply in the first two weeks after the bill is signed into law, with others in the following two weeks. Grants will be capped at $10 million; publicly traded companies and other large businesses are not eligible. The larger Restart Act is not included in this package and is likely to be addressed next year.

“Further delays for eligible business owners are unacceptable,” Rep. Roger Williams of Texas said in a statement last week. “I urge the SBA to make the SVOG a top priority moving forward and President Biden to put qualified individuals into key leadership positions so similar failures will not occur in the future.”