When business is down 90 to 100 percent, help can’t come soon enough. This is how Classic Cinemas CEO Chris Johnson describes the news of federal grant money being allocated to arts venues through the Small Business Administration (SBA) after the latest COVID Relief Bill passed Dec. 27. 

Classic Cinemas’ Lake Theater, 1022 Lake St. in Oak Park, has been shuttered since mid-March 2020. The other 14 theaters in the family-owned portfolio, including the North Riverside Luxury 6 at North Riverside Park Mall, have been closed, too, except for two weeks during the summer. 

“We’ve had some hardships,” Johnson said.

Classic Cinemas is losing 100 percent of its revenue during the pandemic.

The National Independent Venues Association (NIVA) advocated for legislation in the latest relief bill through a Save Our Stages campaign. Through the Save Our Stages Act, included in the Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, $15 billion will be distributed through the Shuttered Venue Operators (SVO) Grant to theatrical and performing arts organization operators; museums, zoos and aquariums; and movie theaters. 

Those “who suffered a 90 percent or greater revenue loss between April 2020 through December 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic” get to apply first. However, applications are not open yet, while the SBA focuses on new Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) funds made accessible in the new relief package.

Classic Cinemas, along with a many local businesses, was a recipient of PPP funds last spring. Brookfield Zoo, which would appear to be another potential beneficiary of a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant – it has closed its doors for the months of January and February and was closed for more than three months in 2020 – received a PPP loan last year of between $5 million and $10 million.

It’s unclear whether the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo, will pursue an SVO grant.

“It could take many weeks, even months for the funding to flow” from SVO grants, according to NIVA, on its website.

16th Street Theater, a performance venue in Berwyn, has expressed interest in pursuing such a grant. The theater at 6420 16th St. credits support from “individuals, foundations, government grants including money from the CARES Act and a Business Interruption Grant” to their survival during this time, according to artistic director and founder Ann Filmer. 

“16th Street will apply for all grants and aid for which we are eligible,” she said. “With our stages being shuttered, we brought in only $15,000 in single ticket sales instead of $54,000 last year. Our subscription campaign brings in $60,000 per year, but in 2020 we only sold $24,000 in subscriptions.”

Live music venues may also benefit from SVO grants.

For Fitzgeralds nightclub, 6615 Roosevelt Rd. in Berwyn, the timing of ownership may pose a question. While the nightclub itself has been in operation for nearly 41 years, current owner Will Duncan took the reins in early March 2020. 

For SVO grants, the revenue used to calculate loss compares 2020 to 2019 numbers. Duncan is hoping that the continuity of the business, and not ownership, will allow him to qualify. 

“My hope is that the eligibility is dynamic enough that I can share information provided by prior ownership and prove continuity in order to get over the hurdle regarding this recent change in ownership,” Duncan said. “I’ll likely engage an attorney to help navigate these waters.”

Although Duncan has found creative business solutions that are COVID-19 safe alternatives, such as neighborhood truck concerts, things have not been easy for the business. 

“Given the recent change of ownership and rather new business entities I established for the project, access to grants and PPP loans have been difficult for Fitzgeralds,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate to do some actual business across the summertime which has kept us breaking even and employing people. However, having suspended on-premises operations back in early November due to the COVID numbers, we’re having a tough winter.”

Johnson, who calls the SVO grant a “lifesaver,” said Classic Cinemas has hopes to reopen the chain’s locations by the spring if the state allows and provided there will be a steady supply of new films.

“Studios are in L.A. and they are the hardest hit [with COVID-19] right now,” Johnson said. 

Johnson also imagined the day when Lake Theater is open, now that a major street construction project is complete, and the street filled with people again enjoying all that downtown Oak Park has to offer.