EDITORIAL: Get relief to performing arts venues and loggers now. December was a long time ago.

Bangor Daily News, Maine
·4 min read

Apr. 14—The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

You can't make this stuff up: the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program has been temporarily shuttered.

This much-anticipated federal relief program is supposed to supplement some revenue for performing arts organizations and live venues, which have been rocked by pandemic closures. The program took months to put together, and after that long wait, applicants were met with a system crash and confusion when it briefly opened last week. The application portal is now closed, and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) says it is "still working to determine an exact reopening date." Applicants can still register for accounts through the SBA.

It is a complicated situation, we don't doubt that, but it is simply unacceptable that this $16 billion in funding — a big chunk of it approved back in December as part of a larger COVID-19 relief package — remains out of reach for the people who need it and for whom it was designed. President Joe Biden's administration needs to figure this out, and figure it out fast.

That's an easy criticism for us to make. But it's a hard reality for some of the businesses and organizations among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We're all prepared for this. We are eagerly anticipating this going live for the last three months," Brian Hinrichs, director of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra, told the BDN. "And it was a total disaster."

On top of the wait, shifting guidance for the program now has the orchestra wondering if they qualify at all.

The fact there's this amount of uncertainty, more than three months after Congress passed and former President Donald Trump eventually signed most of this funding into law, is frankly astounding. And not in a good way.

We get that the program couldn't be stood up immediately in December, that there was a change in administrations in January, that additional funding came into play when the American Rescue Plan Act was passed in March, and that there was an inspector general's warning about the possibility of fraud in the program issued last week. But this never should have stretched into April without money going to the intended recipients.

"It's just a mess," Martin Lodish, the finance director at the nonprofit theater organization Portland Stage Company, told the BDN. "And this is something they've been working on since December."

Maine arts organizations are not alone in their frustration. U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, who has advocated for this funding, is urging the SBA to act quickly.

"I am very disappointed that venues are having difficulty accessing the funds that I fought to include in past relief packages," Pingree said in a statement. "I am urging SBA to swiftly resolve these technical issues so that Maine's arts organizations can get the relief they urgently need and have waited so long to receive."

Unfortunately, arts organizations aren't the only ones who have been playing a very frustrating and very serious waiting game related to federal funds approved months ago. The Maine congressional delegation has also been pressing the Biden administration to distribute $200 million in COVID-19 relief for loggers and timber haulers.

Again, this is funding that was passed in December. And again, this is an industry that has been hit particularly hard during the pandemic.

"While we were pleased to see the recent announcement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that timber harvesting and timber hauling provisions will be included along with other new programs under 'USDA Pandemic Assistance for Producers,' it is critical that you use every authority available to distribute this relief quickly to those who need it," Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, Pingree and Rep. Jared Golden wrote in an April 9 letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsak.

The $200 million in funding is connected to the Loggers Relief Act, which Collins and Golden introduced last year and which both King and Pingree cosponsored. That bill, and the $200 million, were included in the December COVID-19 relief package.

"It has been three months since the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act was signed into law," the four Maine lawmakers added in their letter. "Each day that goes by without financial assistance poses another threat to the survival of our timber industry and the rural communities it supports. For this reason, we hope that USDA will act soon to ensure that our loggers and logging businesses receive direct relief."

The same can be applied to Maine arts organizations waiting on the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program. In both cases, the delay has been unacceptable. It is way past time for these funds to flow to those who need and deserve them, and for clarity to flow with them.