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Theaters fight for federal funding to stay open amid COVID-19 pandemic

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A sign promotes an upcoming livestream show at the Kalamazoo State Theater on Tuesday, June 16, 2020. Theater managers say they have no intention of closing permanently due to revenue loss from COVID-19, but they are encouraging the public and lawmakers to continue support through funding. (WWMT/File)

Time is running out for theaters and concert halls to get critical funding to stay in business amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Managers, owners and supporters of Michigan's live performance venues are calling for financial help from the federal government to avoid shutting down permanently.

If Congress cannot secure the additional funding before its August recess, it could be several month before lawmakers can take action again. Theater managers said this would leave live performance venues more vulnerable and in danger of closing forever.

In an initiative called #SaveOurStages, supporters urged the public to make their voices heard by writing to legislators to support and cosponsor the "Save Our Stages Act" (Senate bill 4258) and the RESTART Act (Senate bill 3814/House bill 7481), which would help ensure the survival of independent venues, festivals and promoters across the nation. The funding for the "Save Out Stages" Act comes in the form of loans; funding for the RESTART Act is grants.

To contact your legislators and help #SaveOurStages you can go to www.SaveOurStages.com. The link will automatically populate with senators and congressional representative based on a person's ZIP code.

The Save Our Stages Act was introduced by U.S. Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota. The RESTART Act was introduced by Sens. Todd Young, R-Indiana, and Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, in the Senate and U.S. Reps. Jared Golden, D-Maine, and Mike Kelly, R-Pennsylvania, in the House. Doing so would ensure that independent venues, arguably the industry hardest hit by the pandemic, receive the financial assistance needed to be able to reopen their doors when it is safe to do so.

Supporters said without inclusion in the next stimulus bill, this push might be the last chance for people's favorite independent venues, festivals and promoters to get the help they need to avoid shutting down permanently.

When Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered the closure of many public spaces and issued a stay at home order in March 2020, live performance venues and concert halls were some of the first businesses to close. Venue managers said they will likely be some of the last to fully reopen. Since that time, theater and live venue managers have been focused on safety plans and ways to be ready for when they can reopen.

According to Whitmer's "Safe Start Plan," live performance venues are in the final stage of opening, Phase 6.

One of the West Michigan venues included in the push for funding is the Kalamazoo State Theatre. It closed to the public March 7 because of the pandemic. The Kalamazoo State Theatre is a part of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), which was formed to try to save independent venues and promoters across the country.

Without support from Congress, 90% of NIVA's independent venues, festivals and promoters across America said they will be forced to close their doors forever. Congress will be voting until Aug. 7.

The public can help by supporting local artists, many of whom are struggling during the pandemic. The Kalamazoo State Theatre continues to do livestreams from inside the theater to bring entertainment virtually. Artists also have been livestreaming from their homes or remotely.

Phillips said comments on the livestreams via Facebook have been a positive support for artists.

"The artists get so excited to see the comments," Phillips said. "It's amazing that that's the audience interaction now."

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