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Austin American-Statesman: Help could be on the way for Austin’s live music venues, restaurants

September 30, 2020

WASHINGTON — Austin’s live music venues and restaurants would get a big boost from two proposed dedicated funds to help such establishments nationwide survive the impact of the coronavirus.

The funds are part of a catch-all $2.2 trillion Democratic bill introduced in the U.S. House this week and expected to get a vote soon.

The creation of a $10 billion fund for grants to live music venues, which incorporates the Save Our Stages bill proposed by U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and a $120 billion grant program for restaurants would be a lifeline for struggling Austin businesses.

“Since we passed relief in May, Republicans have stood squarely in the way of us getting direly needed aid out the door to struggling Americans,” said U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin. “Central Texas cannot afford for them to block this updated Heroes Act, which provides focused lifelines to live music venues, restaurants, and the arts —industries at the heart of our community, not only keeping our neighbors employed and our economy afloat, but also keeping Austin ‘the Live Music Capital of the World.’”

It would be the first time federal lawmakers have directed pandemic relief funding for live music venues. The program would direct the Small Business Administration to make grants of up to $12 million available to eligible venues for such costs as payroll, rent, utilities and personal protective equipment.

“It’s absolutely necessary because the venues will close and never reopen,” Nakia Reynoso, co-founder and president of Austin Texas Musicians, told the American-Statesman. “Musicians absolutely depend on our stage venues as employers.”

Most live music venues in Texas have been shuttered since the beginning of the pandemic in March. Those that reopened in May as Gov. Greg Abbott relaxed coronavirus restrictions then had to shut down again in June under Abbott’s orders, still in effect, that closed all bars.

National Independent Venue Association spokeswoman Audrey Fix Schaefer said: “We hope our elected officials come together on COVID-19 assistance in the coming days, not weeks or even months. Our small, independent businesses, which normally contribute billions of dollars to local economies, are on the precipice of mass collapse if this critical funding doesn’t come through.”

Restaurants would benefit from a separate program administered by the U.S. Treasury Department that would make grants available for the difference between a business’s 2019 revenues and estimated 2020 revenues for each quarter.

“We need this because business isn’t back and we’re running out of money,” said Adam Orman, co-owner of L’Oca D’oro, an Italian restaurant in Mueller. The eatery has not served guests for months, relying instead on income through food delivery services and from providing the Austin school district with meals for families in need.

But getting federal funding won’t mean he’ll reopen to customers inside the restaurant, Orman said. Rather, he said he wants to keep operating as he has been until the pandemic has eased and he feels he can operate safely. “I want to be able to get to the end of this and know that our restaurant didn’t get anybody sick,” he said.

Ben Fordham, who operates three restaurants in Austin, said that carry-out business has sustained his Chinese restaurant Wu Chow, but “the other two struggled.”

Fordham, chief operating officer of Chameleon Companies, said that business was down 80% at Swift’s Attic and Rosedale Kitchen. “It’s been an extremely hard five months,” he said. So if Congress agrees to a funding package that includes the restaurant fund, he said, “what it means for these two restaurants is huge.”

The Senate will have to pass a bill, as well, for it to become law and it was unclear if GOP leaders were willing to come to agreement with Democrats on the relief package.