It’s been almost eight months since South Hill Banks, a homegrown bluegrass band, played the last show staged at The Broadberry, on March 7, before COVID-19 silenced the music at the popular concert venue on West Broad Street in Richmond.
Broadberry LLC, the company that owns the venue, isn’t looking for money to reopen anytime before the spring at the earliest. Instead, it’s looking for help to remain closed until it’s safe for performers and audiences to gather for indoor concerts.
The company is looking for Congress to throw entertainment venues “a lifeline so ... they can stay closed until there’s a vaccine and life as we knew it in February 2020,” said Lucas Fritz, partner in the companies that own The Broadberry and The Camel in Richmond and Broadberry Entertainment Group, which books concerts at venues across Virginia and the surrounding region.
Congress is working on that lifeline, dubbed the Save Our Stages Act when it was introduced in both chambers in July, to help entertainment venues of varying types and sizes survive a pandemic that makes large indoor gatherings unsafe for the people onstage, in the seats and behind the scenes.
Help is most likely to come through a $908 billion emergency COVID-19 relief package that emerged this week as perhaps the best chance for the 116th Congress to reach a deal before it adjourns this month and President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20.
“They’re absolutely going to be part of this package, 100 percent,” said Rachel Cohen, a spokesperson for Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who helped shape the interim funding plan with a bipartisan group of moderate senators and representatives, including Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th.
“Stages, in particular, are in need of relief because it is fully unsafe for them to reopen.”
Less certain is whether entertainment venues eligible for financial aid will include minor league baseball teams, such as the Richmond Flying Squirrels, a Double-A franchise that played its last regular-season game in September of 2019, a 7-1 victory over the Bowie Baysox at The Diamond.
Spanberger and other Virginians in the House are pushing to include minor league franchises in the emergency relief package, although Warner’s office cautions that Congress doesn’t want to open the door to major league sports franchises to apply for money, as some did after passage of the CARES Act in March.
A bipartisan group of 115 congressional representatives — led by Reps. Lori Trahan, D-Mass., and David McKinley, R-W.Va. — asked the House leadership on Friday to include minor league baseball clubs in the evolving emergency relief package. That would allow them and workers who rely on them to survive the loss of revenues over 18 to 21 months with none of them playing ball.
“We believe Congress should not permit COVID-19 to force [minor league baseball] clubs into insolvency,” they wrote.
Six Virginia representatives from both parties signed the letter — Spanberger and Donald McEachin, D-4th; Bobby Scott, D-3rd; Denver Riggleman, R-5th; Elaine Luria, D-2nd; and Ben Cline, R-6th.
McEachin said he favors emergency relief for all parts of the economy hurt by the pandemic, including businesses and employees who depend financially on the games the Flying Squirrels play at The Diamond.
“COVID-19 does not discriminate in terms of who it attacks,” he said, “and our relief shouldn’t discriminate against who it helps.”
The intervention comes at a critical time for the Flying Squirrels and other minor league teams, which face an impending shake-up by Major League Baseball that is likely to eliminate some minor league clubs and force others to find new major league partners.
“It’s been a double tsunami, honestly,” Flying Squirrels COO Todd “Parney” Parnell said Friday. “The anxiety level in our industry has never been higher and that’s an understatement, like saying [former pro wrestler] Ric Flair has a colorful personality.”
Like other entertainment venues, the Squirrels received some aid from the Payroll Protection Program in the CARES Act adopted in late March as the pandemic was spreading and forcing many businesses to close or cut back sharply.
But the team still had to slash its full-time payroll through layoffs and furloughs by more than two-thirds after losing more than 90% of its revenue.
“It’s been devastating,” Parnell said.
Like other entertainment venues seeking aid under the next federal relief package, he said the Flying Squirrels haven’t had the option of staying open to generate revenue, other than to open The Diamond for outdoor community events, from movies to free COVID-19 testing clinics.
“We haven’t had a game since September 2019,” Parnell said. “Any help we can get is going to help us build a bridge to our future.”
The Tin Pan, a cozy music club in western Henrico County, hasn’t staged a show since mid-March. Owners Lisa Harrison and Kevin Liu considered trying to open at half of the club’s 220-seat capacity after Virginia loosened restrictions on indoor gatherings earlier this year but decided that the risk to its audience wasn’t worth it.
“It was just setting ourselves up even for just one person getting sick,” Harrison said.
The club received help from the Payroll Protection Program and a big boost from its landlord, Katherine Watson at Quioccasin Station Shopping Center. “She has been incredibly gracious to us,” Harrison said.
The music club’s staff — about a half-dozen full-time employees and 15 to 20 part-time workers — were able to receive enhanced unemployment benefits under the CARES Act through the end of July, but that money also has run out.
“Right now, we’re biting our fingernails and hoping something happens by next spring,” Harrison said.
The idea behind the Save Our Stages Act was to dedicate federal funding to businesses that couldn’t adapt safely to restrictions imposed under the pandemic or survive on what PPP money they received.
“Virginia’s live entertainment venues face unique financial circumstances during the pandemic due to the structure of their businesses,” Spanberger said. “Live entertainment cannot be adapted to a virtual setting, leading to zero revenue generation. Unfortunately, many of the federal COVID-19 relief programs — including PPP — didn’t take this situation into account.
“This disconnect was further compounded by the fact that live entertainment venues rely heavily on part-time workers, which skewed federal relief loan calculations,” she said. “The Save Our Stages Act recognizes this issue and understands that these venues will likely be some of the last businesses to fully reopen.”
Fritz, at The Broadberry, said his business received aid under PPP for just eight weeks. “The Broadberry is going to be closed a year, and we got two months of funding,” he said.
The Camel was able to improvise because it also served as a restaurant, initially for takeout, later for patio or indoor dining and eventually for small, socially distant performances.
Broadberry Entertainment, as a booking agency, was able stage some outdoor shows, such as drive-in performances at The Diamond and City Stadium, and pod seating at the Bon Secours Training Center, but was able to generate a fraction of its normal revenue.
Reopening indoor concert venues faces practical obstacles — artists don’t want to risk performing and customers don’t want to risk attending — Fritz said.
But it also poses “a moral and ethical decision for a business owner,” whether to risk financial ruin by staying closed or public health by reopening, he said. “When you have to choose between those two, it puts you in a very precarious situation.”
Harrison, at Tin Pan, said, “It is absolutely my intention, even if we don’t get a dime from Congress or any other federal funding, that we reopen.”
But, she said, “We have to do it in a safe way.”