theater owners told COVID help finally on the way – Crain’s Chicago Business


Chicago theater operators who have been financially whacked by COVID-19 were told today that long-promised help from Washington, D.C., finally is about to appear.

But after more than six months of waiting, the reaction from people in the live-venue industry seemed to be more hopeful than assured.

The news that the financial cavalry is on the horizon came from Isabella Guzman, who was confirmed in March as director of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

In a meeting with a couple of dozen industry officials and U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Chicago, at Annoyance Theatre at Belmont and Clark, Guzman said her agency expects to make decisions on all pending applications for financial help “on or about July 15.”

Such approvals have been very slow to come.

Under a COVID-aid bill approved by Congress last December and signed into law by President Donald Trump, operators of stage theaters, live-music facilities and other venues are entitled to grants of $10 million apiece to make up for lost revenue during COVID shutdowns.

Congress authorized $16 billion in aid. According to the SBA, only $1.2 billion has gone out the door.

“It’s been a crazy existence, with lots of highs and lows,” Chris Bauman, owner and operator of the Patio Theater and Avondale Music Hall on the Northwest Side, told me. Bauman has applied for grants to cover 45 percent of his lost revenue but hasn’t heard back yet.

In Illinois, only half of those who have applied—27 of 52—so far have been informed whether or not they’re getting their grant under the Save Our Stages Act, said Ryan Arnold, spokesman for the Chicago Independent Venue League.

“We are pleased that emergency relief funds have begun flowing,” he said. But after six moths, “It is crucial that those funds flow more quickly to those in need, many of whom are on the cusp of shutting forever.”

In a brief interview, Guzman said she’s made some progress, for instance installing an entirely new review system that now is working well. The agency now has acted on 10,000 applications nationally, without another 4,000 to go.

Quigley told me that, as of today, Annoyance is the only theater in the city to have received money.

Guzman “really inherited a firestorm,” Quigley said. “I’m satisfied with her efforts, but there’s so much more to do.”

This story has been updated to correct the last name of the owner and operator of the Patio Theater and Avondale Music Hall. He is Chris Bauman, not Bowman. Also, Arnold is a spokesman only for the Chicago Independent Venue League, not also the National Independent Venue Association.