Whoever said “the show must go on” never pondered life during a pandemic.
The Omaha Community Playhouse suddenly had no choice but to shut down all its performances last month due to the coronavirus outbreak. And Katie Broman, the executive director, was immediately confronted with a very real problem.
With no more ticket sales, how do we pay our employees?
For Broman and the staff, the answer arrived last week in the form of a forgivable loan under the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal relief package intended to help small businesses and nonprofits get by until it’s safe for society to open up again.
“It’s just been a huge relief to get that loan,” Broman said.
The playhouse was far from the program’s only Nebraska beneficiary.
As of early last week, some 18,565 Nebraska small businesses and nonprofits had been approved for more than $2.7 billion worth of loans.
In fact, Nebraska for its size ranked second in the country in loan dollars received, trailing only North Dakota. Iowa ranked 11th per capita, with $3.75 billion in loan approvals.
It was a good thing many Nebraskans got their loan applications into the program early. By Thursday, the entire $349 billion appropriated for the program under the federal stimulus bill had been claimed.
For now, new loans are on hold until congressional leaders come to agreement on the next round of federal stimulus assistance.
Richard Baier, president of the Nebraska Bankers Association, said he’s not surprised Nebraskans were able to benefit so strongly from the initial round of funding.
Nebraska’s economy boasts a strong base of small businesses, Baier said, and most of them already had relationships with a local banker. While the money for the program is coming from the federal government, banks serve as the administrative conduit.
“Many of our small businesses were already communicating with their banker even before the program started,” Baier said.
Baier said he knows of Nebraska banks that were submitting loan applications in the wee hours of the morning on April 3, the day the U.S. Small Business Administration opened the online portal for loan applications.
Angie Ringling, owner of Spin Linen Management, which supplies linens to restaurants and medical offices, said she feels lucky that she was able to get to work early with Omaha’s Core Bank and secure funding. She knows of others in her industry around the country that were shut out.
“They were really on the ball and very proactive,” she said of her bank. “We had it all ready to go.”
Steven Knapp, Omaha market president for Core Bank, said his bank has made nearly 300 such loans, totaling $65 million.
Those businesses have run the gamut: service firms like Ringling’s; professional firms like architects, medical and dental offices; restaurants and bars; nonprofits; and even a T-shirt shop.
“This is a wonderful program,” Knapp said.
Figures show the average loan in Nebraska has been about $150,000.
“It’s not a big money-maker (for banks),” Baier said. “First and foremost, our members are focused on helping their customers weather the current crisis and survive and thrive going forward.”
David Michaels was wondering how his optometry business was going to survive after a combination of social distancing measures, limits on eye exams to essential services and the inclination of customers to just stay at home reduced business by 90%.
But the co-owner of Millard Family Eyecare closely followed as Congress crafted the $2.2 trillion CARES Act. He knew potential help was on the way.
He also worked with Core Bank in Omaha and was among the early applicants. The money arrived Thursday — just in time for payroll.
“It does make me feel more comfortable that this is going to work out and that we will survive,” he said.
Under the program, small businesses and nonprofits can borrow up to 2½ times their average monthly payroll, which can then be used to pay employees, rent or other bills. The bonus is that the money is forgiven and doesn’t have to be paid back to the degree that borrowers keep their employees on the payroll.
That’s a balancing act for employers like Michaels. Many of the employees his company furloughed weeks ago are doing well for now on unemployment, particularly with the extra $600 in weekly benefits that were also part of the stimulus bill.
He’s not so much focused on having the whole loan forgiven as making sure he has enough cash to pay expenses until business can resume.
Broman is also looking forward to when things can get back to normal at the Playhouse.
It was devastating to cancel shows that were already in production and rehearsal, particularly given the way actors pour their hearts into their roles.
“These are dream roles for people, and they put in a lot of time,” she said. “To have that taken away was heartbreaking.”
But the shutdown also created huge financial issues for the theater.
While it’s a nonprofit that benefits from donors, it essentially earns two-thirds of its budget through ticket sales and season subscriptions. A fundraiser had to be canceled, too.
The Omaha Community Playhouse bills itself as the largest community theater in the country, and it has a staff to match.
There are 38 full-time and part-time workers on the payroll, performing jobs like costuming, set construction and decoration, lighting, facilities maintenance, box office, marketing, fundraising, education and administration.
The nonprofit had some cash reserves, and some donors helped. But the theater’s leaders also started talking to Security National Bank about a Paycheck Protection Program loan.
The application went in the first day. It was approved five days later. And Thursday, the nonprofit received its first funding.
While no performances are going on right now, the staff is keeping very busy, Broman said.
They are working on special projects. And they are making plans for the next round of shows, whenever that is. This pandemic can’t last forever.
“It was really important to me to retain our people and keep them working,” she said. “This assistance is working out perfectly for us.”