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Advocacy groups push for fast, centralized aid for musicians impacted by Covid-19 spread

Monday, March 30, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

More than a dozen local music nonprofits have signed on in support of City Council’s recent move to create aid programs to address the business impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, with a letter sent last week calling for quick relief through a centralized and streamlined allocation process.

The letter asks Council members to focus on providing assistance for basic needs such as food and health services in the short term ahead of expected aid from the federal government in the next month or more. For small businesses including music venues and arts spaces, it asks for financial tools aside from Small Business Administration loans that some see as a poor fit for businesses that may not be able to return to normal business practices until well into the third quarter of this year.

Another key factor is speed, with some signees of the letter calling for some forms of assistance to be available by mid-April at the latest.

“As you consider these circumstances, please include timeliness and efficiency. We need one source, rather than being referred to multiple possible programs to apply for,” the letter reads. “We need low- to no-cost relief, rather than loans. We need clear communication on when to rely on relief, and we hope the city will be able to help more immediately while the state and federal government figure out what they are going to do.”

Nakia Reynoso, president and founder of the advocacy group Austin Texas Musicians, said eliminating bureaucracy should be one of the main goals of city staff working on the aid programs launched at Council’s direction last week.

“The hardest part of doing any business with the city is the number of hoops you have to jump through to get paid,” he said. “What we’re telling City Hall is, make it easy. Don’t make us jump through this hoop and wait in that line and then call this phone number. Give us one centralized office with a set number of people to deal with this particular thing.”

Beyond City Hall, groups such as the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians and the organizers of the Banding Together fundraising campaign are working with HEB to distribute approximately 500 $75 gift cards for food and other basics at local stores.

Cody Cowan, executive director of the merchants association for the Red River Cultural District, said work is beginning on a proposal to receive some of the $400,000 raised by the Stand With Austin fundraiser to extend food aid efforts.

Cowan said the focus on helping local musicians in the short term has been “survival mode,” and that the total fallout for the area bar and nightclub industry won’t be known for months.

He said some of those businesses have received a break from the normal double rents charged in March (a term written into many leases because of the sharp uptick in alcohol and other revenue produced by South by Southwest each year), but otherwise property owners in the district have offered no extensions or rent relief.

While encouraged by the work of Council members who moved quickly this month to create and then repeatedly expand the resolution for economic help, Cowan said it will likely take ongoing lobbying to push for programs to begin delivering relief quickly.

“In spite of there being some really strong leaders on the dais right now, I don’t see the city of Austin operating any differently than it has in the past in that it’s fairly disconnected from the people on the streets and having any commitment to short-term timelines. I’m really concerned about them turning promises and well wishes into actions right now. It’s going to take increased pressure and increased education for our city leaders to create that product with staff,” he said. “This needs to have happened a week or two weeks ago, and needs to be happening two weeks from now. It doesn’t need to be taking 30 to 90 days but given the city’s timeline, we can’t have a resolution happening 18 months from now when we’re looking for walls of tires to set on fire and are working on finding our Mad Max gear in our closets.”

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Photo by By Sk5893 (Own work), CC BY-SA 4.0.

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