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'Save our stages': Fearing permanent closure, entertainment venues band together for federal help

Live venues across Tampa Bay and the country lit up in red Tuesday night as part of a campaign to bring attention to the situation.

TAMPA, Fla. — The lights went dark on Tom DeGeorge’s stage six months ago.

The owner of Crowbar, a small bar and live music venue in Tampa’s Ybor City, now fears they might not come back on.

"We've already lost many of us,” DeGeorge said. “There's venues that have gone out of business and it's happening more rapidly now that time's going on."

While other businesses have slowly been allowed to reopen to some degree, live entertainment venues have not.

You just can’t do live music to-go, which has left local independent venues like DeGeorge’s hanging on by a thinning thread. DeGeorge, along with more than three dozen other live entertainment venues in the Bay area and more than 3,000 nationwide are now calling on Congress to step in and offer relief.

DeGeorge is part of the National Independent Venue Association, or NIVA. More than 600 artists, from Billy Joel to Lady Gaga, co-signed a letter calling on Congress to take action.

Right now two bipartisan bills could help.

The so-called "Save Our Stages" Act would authorize $10 billion in small business grants to cover operating costs, payroll and PPE.

At the same time, a bill dubbed the "RESTART" Act would extend the Paycheck Protection Program.

"The way Ybor City looked at the start of this pandemic compared to what we will look like when it is over if we don't get the special kind of funding we need will be completely different,” DeGeorge said.

“We’ve been decimated.”

NIVA says, “90% of independent venues report that if the shutdown lasts six months and there’s no federal assistance, they will never reopen again.”

Bigger venues like the Straz Center are facing similar struggles. The venue, along with others from Sarasota, to Clearwater, St. Petersburg and across the country were lit up in red Tuesday night as part of a campaign to bring attention to the situation live venues face if Congress doesn't act soon.

The #WeMakeEvents coalition has endorsed the "RESTART" Act.

"Everybody is really hurting,” said Straz Center CEO Judy Lisi, where big shows aren’t expected to return until next spring.

Lisi says Straz, one of the largest employers in downtown Tampa, has had to lay off or furlough a large chunk of its 500 employee workforce.

"We're an industry—like any other industry—that needs support until we can resume our very successful business, or what was a very successful business,” Lisi said.

“That’s what this red alert is about, to call attention to the state of where our industry is right now and to make sure our communities understand how severe it is.”

No vote has yet been scheduled on either bill.

The Senate reconvenes on Sept. 8 while the House returns to session on Sept. 14.

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