Vermont venues were promised $15 billion in relief grants. They’re still waiting

Local News

In December, the live entertainment industry breathed a sigh of relief when Congress passed the ‘Save Our Stages Act’, a $15 billion bailout for music venues.

It’s now been nearly three months since the bailout was okayed as part of a larger COVID-19 relief package, but struggling venues haven’t received a dollar of it. To make matters worse, venue owners haven’t even been able to begin the application process for receiving a grant.

“We really anticipated that the portal would open sometime in January, and here we are in March and we’re still waiting for it,” said Peter Edelmann, owner of the Essex Experience. “It’s devastating, it’s really a matter of time as to how long people can hold up.”

Like many venue owners, Edelmann has been forced to get creative during the pandemic. His Double E Performance Center, which includes a large theater designed to accommodate hundreds of people for concerts or blockbuster movies, has been largely used for livestream events. He’s also using the downtime to renovate the building’s main lobby.

It’s been an uncertain holding pattern for months, and even if Vermont manages to get every adult vaccinated by the summer, there’s still a lot of questions.

“It’s clear that there will be a loosening of the spigot, but the question is when that takes place and at what scale,” Edelmann said.

In-person business hasn’t been at a total standstill, but Edelmann said modest ticket sales and another summer of outdoor concerts won’t cut it.

“We are open at the movie theaters here on Saturday and Sunday, and we’re going to be opening Friday nights, but with the product and content out there and the fear in most people’s minds, we’re at a point where we’re operating at a negative,” Edelmann said.

As Edelmann alluded to, the ‘Save Our Stages’ standstill isn’t the only cause for uncertainty among live venue owners. President Biden has projected there will be enough vaccines for every U.S. adult by the end of May, which has prompted questions about the timeline for fully reopening Vermont’s concert halls, bars and theaters.

Alex Crothers, owner of Higher Ground in South Burlington, said that state officials won’t be providing any updated guidance on events until mid-April.

“That’s an eternity for us in the events sector,” Crothers said.

Crothers said he’s joined other local venue owners in asking for that timeline to be accelerated due to the improving vaccination outlook in Vermont.

As both of those debates unfold, musicians themselves have been stepping up to help where federal dollars have been lacking.

Chad Hollister, a Vermont musician, recently worked with the New England Musician’s Relief Fund to host VT Sounds, a livestream benefit for Vermont artists.

“It was just a really positive event and raised over $17,000 dollars,” Hollister said. “Our percussionist said New England Musicians Relief Fund saved his Christmas.”

Musicians like Hollister have reason to believe there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, because nearby states like New York have taken steps to reopen venues.

Beginning April 2, Empire State venues can reopen at 33 percent capacity, with up to 100 people indoors. 200 people can gather outdoors. If venues enact a requirement that customers have a negative COVID-19, capacity can be expanded to 150 people indoors and 500 people outdoors.

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