Music and arts presenters in Maine say the COVID-19 stimulus bill passed by Congress – and still awaiting a wavering president’s signature – would guarantee the return of music and theater, but many say it will be late 2021 or early 2022 before their business is back to normal.

The good news is, they expect a return to normal, whatever that means in a post-pandemic world.

“There is a good chance the landscape will look the same on the other side of this. If you had asked me that two months ago, I would have said a resounding no. But I am cautiously optimistic that things are finally going in the right direction,” said Scott Mohler, a Portland-based agent and promoter and president of the Maine Music Alliance, which formed this summer to advocate for independent music venues in Maine.

Mohler based his optimism on the passage by Congress of a coronavirus relief package with $15 billion for music venue owners, theater producers and other cultural institutions that have been shuttered since the pandemic began in March. The money is part of a larger $900 billion stimulus package that was in limbo Wednesday awaiting the signature, or veto, of President Trump. Mohler’s Maine group, as well as the National Independent Venue Association, lobbied for the Save Our Stages Act, which was folded into the larger stimulus bill.

The legislation also extends the popular Paycheck Protection Program, a forgivable federal loan that many Maine arts groups used when it was created in the spring. With the new legislation, they’ll have to decide whether to pursue a forgivable loan or a grant for up to 45 percent of 2019 earned revenue. They’re not eligible for both.

“The devil is in the details,” said Anita Stewart, executive and artistic director at Portland Stage, who was reviewing the fine print of the bill. “But it sounds like good news for us. Our biggest concern was that the larger, for-profit commercial venues were going to get gigantic grants that would make it harder for smaller organizations like all of us in Maine to have the opportunity to make a case. But it seems that won’t be the case.”

The $15 billion earmarked for the arts could benefit both for-profit music promoters, including the operators of the State Theatre, Portland House of Music and other music venues, and nonprofit arts presenters, such as Portland Stage and Opera Maine. Museums and other cultural institutions that have sustained economic losses because of the pandemic also could tap the fund. The maximum grant is $10 million. No organization in Maine would come close to qualifying for that amount.

The bill sets aside $3 billion for nonprofit presenters, and $2 billion is reserved for organizations with fewer than 50 employees. The legislation extends the Paycheck Protection Program to March 31, providing $284 billion for a “second draw” of forgivable loans for smaller and harder-hit businesses, with a maximum amount of $2 million. However, organizations or companies that apply for a second PPP loan are not eligible for grants through the $15 billion fund.

Caroline Musica Koelker, executive director of Opera Maine, said organizations will have to decide whether to apply for the forgivable PPP loan or a grant. If Opera Maine applied for a grant, it would be eligible for about $75,000, she said, based on 2019 earned revenue. But another PPP loan might make more sense. Like Stewart, she was studying the details. “Every organization is different, and every organization is going to be looking closely at the final language to figure out which is the best option, since you cannot apply for both,” she said.

Lauren Wayne, general manager of the parent company that owns the State Theatre and who also books shows for Thompson’s Point, wouldn’t discuss her company’s financial details, but said the legislation will allow her to rehire staff and plan to reopen for shows when it is safe to do so. But she emphasized that it would be a long time before that happens. The bill, based on language from the original Save Our Stages Act, buys time to make reopening possible at all.

Without the bill and the money behind it, many music venues would close, she said. Portland lost at least one music club to the pandemic, when Port City Music Hall closed in July.

“We most likely will not be able to safely reopen at full capacity until the vaccine has been widely distributed and proven to be effective,” Wayne wrote in an email. “The SOS act will allow music venues to survive until then; we have been hemorrhaging money with no revenue coming in since March with no plans to reopen over the next several months, so that’s a full year or more of no revenue, but still having to pay the bills. At least now there is hope that many of us can make it until then.”

In her email, Wayne praised Sen. Susan Collins of Maine for being an early co-sponsor of the Save Our Stages Act and for advocating for the legislation. Collins “heard our very loud plea for help. It’s been a long year full of many, many lows and very few highs, and I am happy to end the year on this high note,” she wrote.

Aimee Petrin, executive and artistic director of Portland Ovations, described the relief bill as a bridge to better times. “This relief funding is absolutely crucial as we stitch together a quilt of financial survival,” Petrin said. “This is just to keep the lights on. This is so people in the industry can pay the rent, put food on the table and keep venues alive until we can gather again.”

Portland Stage is among a handful of theaters nationally that has reopened with plays with small casts and limited audiences. If Maine safety regulations continue to allow it, Portland Stage will mount a production of the play “Or” in late January, but Stewart is not planning for a full theater until the fall at the soonest.

“I would love to try get the summer musical going if it seemed doable, but my gut is we will not be in a place where people will be comfortable sitting cheek-to-jowl this summer. By fall, there will be some semblance of normal. Most people will be vaccinated by then, and if not a full house, maybe we will have a 50 percent house instead of 50 people,” she said. “But in my real head, it’s probably (next) January before we are back to where we can have as many people as we want and people are not feeling uncomfortable with that idea.”

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