Michelle Busch. Credit: Christopher A. Dixon

UPDATE, Feb. 3, 9:30 a.m.: The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning & Economic Development reopened applications for the Entertainment Bridge Fund Supporting Businesses Program to adjust eligibility, so sole proprietors who received Pandemic Unemployment Assistance can now apply. Deputy Mayor John Falcicchio says DMPED pivoted after hearing feedback. Applications are open until Feb. 12 at noon. Apply HERE.

At the beginning of 2020, Michelle Busch was focusing on building client relationships and making her company, Event Solutions DC, a go-to for everything from PR to event planning to travel management. Then the coronavirus pandemic shut down the D.C. region in March and nearly all her revenue evaporated. Busch has been getting by on unemployment benefits, but her business struggles to survive. When she heard about the D.C. government’s Entertainment Bridge Fund, which promises $29.5 million in grants and names businesses in the events planning and production space, she prepared to apply. 

“When this announcement came out, I said great, let’s move forward, let’s find out how this can help, because I literally am holding on to my business by dear life,” she says. But as she kept reading the requirements, she stopped: Busch is a sole proprietor, and although sole proprietors are eligible for the Bridge Fund, they’re disqualified if they received or were approved for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), unemployment benefits for contractors, gig, and self-employed workers. Her business wouldn’t qualify for any of the grants.

“I’ve worked so hard to become a business owner. When I looked at the eligibility, I believe it’s the second requirement, that if you received PUA funds you are ineligible. And then you go back and look at the list of who the money is for, and you’re saying wait a minute, that doesn’t make sense,” says Busch. “This is my opinion: The majority of the people on that list are receiving PUA. So we need this. This is not going toward my rent, this is not going toward things of that nature. This is going toward my business. I still have to pay taxes. I still have to keep subscriptions up. There are things I have to take care of via my business that this money would help. And then I would be able to stimulate the economy in some type of way!” 

Adding to her frustration: It took her almost five months to receive any unemployment funds after she applied in the spring, despite following up multiple times and Tweeting at the Department of Employment Services about her situation. Now, she’s receiving weekly benefits plus the $300 federal bonus authorized in December. “That, in a sense, was a slap in the face again,” she says.

Busch is frustrated that she couldn’t even make her case to the Bridge Fund, and wishes she could apply. “And even if I didn’t get the money—if they looked at everything, and I was able to apply, but I didn’t get it—it’s still the fact I was able to apply. And it’s the fact that others of my colleagues and people in a particular industry were able to apply and get it,” she says. “And maybe someone else will be able to eat.”

The $29.5 million Entertainment Bridge Fund is split into two parts: the Venues Program, which closed to applications on Jan. 11 and is meant to help arts venues pay rent or mortgage, taxes, and utilities costs, among others, and the Supporting Businesses Program, which closes Jan. 22 and is meant for businesses that don’t own their own venues but still depend on live events, like event planners and promoters, photographers, performing artists, audio engineers, equipment rental companies, and some dance and theater companies. Sole proprietors of small businesses are specifically marked as eligible—with a caveat. Many of the people named as possible grantees of the Supporting Businesses Program were also eligible for the CARES Act-authorized PUA. And, the D.C. government says, anyone who was eligible for or drew PUA is not eligible for the Bridge Fund, leaving countless people in the entertainment industry frustrated and confused. 

Creative entrepreneurs filed for unemployment because that was one of the few resources available to them. But PUA claimants have encountered difficulties: They had to wait a month into the pandemic to start filing because unemployment didn’t exist for them until the CARES Act passed and they waited longer for claims to be paid than people collecting traditional unemployment. In early December, the District government did announce one-time stimulus payments of $1,200 to about 20,000 residents who drew PUA. On Twitter and Reddit, it’s easy to find people still upset over the lack of redetermination or back pay. For doing what city officials instructed them to do months ago—drawing PUA—this group is now ineligible for Bridge Fund dollars. 

A photographer living in Ward 8, who asked not to be named, tells City Paper he tried applying for the Bridge Fund for his photography business, which he runs as a sole proprietor, on Jan. 12. He was shocked to see that he was ineligible after submitting an application and chalked it up to a technical error. When he emailed the Bridge Fund’s helpline, he was told “We will not be changing this qualification as we are trying to help businesses that did not receive or were not eligible for PUA,” signed “Sincerely, The Bridge Fund Team.” 

City Paper reached out to the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development to ask why the Entertainment Bridge Fund grant excluded D.C. residents receiving unemployment. In a statement, DMPED wrote “The Entertainment Bridge Fund Supporting Business Program is designed to support businesses in the entertainment industry that have significant operating expenses (such as rent, utilities, equipment rental, and payroll). Once the application period closes, we are looking forward to evaluating applications and providing grants that will range from $5,000–$50,000.”

The photographer, who lost nearly all his business thanks to event cancellations, heard about the Bridge Fund from the mayor’s briefings and the Anacostia BID, which he praises for keeping Ward 8 businesses informed about potential funding opportunities. He’d applied for unemployment because it seemed like the logical step while his business struggled. “If you’re paying attention to the briefings that the mayor has, this is what they’re offering for small businesses [like mine],” he says of PUA. “We haven’t stopped operating—we just can’t do the business that we normally do. Companies aren’t having large gatherings, which is that space that we’re in.”

He’s frustrated that applying for PUA made him ineligible for Bridge Fund money he could use. “We still have bills that we have to pay. We still have overhead that we have to pay. We still have equipment that we need. We still have software that we need to pay for. We still have storage that we’re paying for. We still have to make sure that we can maintain and manage those things that we need to take care of,” he says. 

As for his $179 weekly PUA benefit, he says it’s not covering the bills. The federal government’s $600 boost for Americans who receive unemployment benefits expired in July. Congress eventually passed legislation to give them an extra $300, but not every person who files in D.C. is receiving this boost yet or getting their claims accepted in 2021, even if they had received money in 2020. The Ward 8 photographer just got his $300 boost. “It helps very little. It was better when they added the $600. What they’re doing now … I mean, you can pay your cell phone bill, probably. And some other small bills. But you just have to pull money from other places,” he says. 

The restrictive eligibility requirements especially sting for those who’ve worked to get local creative types direct aid since the pandemic destroyed their industry.  

Graham Smith-White. Credit: Johnny Graves

“The Bridge Fund is not something that magically appeared in front of me. We’ve been working to get something like this in place since May, at least,” says Graham Smith-White, who’s worked in the music industry for 20 years.

“The fact that there’s a supporting business section at all I think is a testament to the fact that we pushed as hard as we did because there is this whole section of this industry—like photographers and security and production and booking agents—that we all work for ourselves. That’s how it works. Get one day a week each at the music venues, and you got a full-time job.”  

He is a part of the DC Music Stakeholders, a grassroots coalition of artists, venues, and local activists that proposed legislation focused on the industry, which was first to close during the pandemic but will be last to reopen. The bill, titled the Music Venue Relief Act, went nowhere in the D.C. Council. 

Smith-White, meanwhile, has been floating. “I just kind of floated in a very literal sense,” he says. “My girlfriend has a boat and we just stayed on the boat because it was free and was technically a roof over our head.” He’d been living on a boat docked along the Anacostia River until recently. He now has a mailing address in Takoma, so he can apply for assistance while he’s unemployed. 

Before the District recorded its first confirmed case of COVID-19 in March, Smith-White worked in the local music industry in various ways. He was the technical lead at Pearl Street Warehouse,  and he is the founder of a creative consultancy called The Infinite Goodness. He’s also a musician: His group is called The Sunrise Review. His last gig before the pandemic was at the Latino Economic Development Center, where he offered technical support for a community policing event run by the Kennedy Center and the Metropolitan Police Department’s Side by Side Band

The only expense Smith-White has is rent, something he’s always been deliberate about because his profession didn’t pay much to start. He is receiving unemployment, around $150 per week, but getting PUA was a headache. He applied for traditional unemployment in the spring but was rejected and left it at that. He didn’t realize he had to be rejected for traditional unemployment and reapply for PUA to get benefits. No one at the Department of Employment Services answered his calls. He just started to get unemployment in September. 

The Bridge Fund is the only direct aid Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration has offered to the local entertainment industry, according to Chris Naoum, a member of the DC Music Stakeholders and co-founder of Listen Local First, a local initiative that brings awareness to and creates opportunities for musicians and venues. That direct aid arrived 10 months into the public health emergency. Naoum questions whether the grants, namely the Supporting Businesses Program, will serve his community, given the eligibility requirements. He’s heard the requirement of having a minimum of $20,000 of annual operating expenses for 2020 could also be exclusionary, since workers weren’t able to work the majority of the year. (Smith-White, for example, cannot report $20,000 because he hasn’t been working and accruing costs.)    

“I’m a little disappointed that we haven’t had direct communication and we haven’t been consulted directly—the music community hasn’t been consulted directly on what they needed, but we’ve been sending them information,” Naoum says.  He adds that he can understand the lack of communication because District officials are responding to an unprecedented crisis, the pandemic.

Angela Byrd, founder of the 6-year-old “creative think tank” and events business Made in the DMV, wasn’t sure on Tuesday if her business would be eligible for the Bridge Fund. (She, along with Smith-White, were also members of the mayor’s 202Creates program for creative entrepreneurs.) She says she recognizes that the city is trying to help but that many people—especially independent contractors and self-employed workers—are falling through the cracks.

Angela Byrd. Credit: Hazzard (District Empire Entertainment)

“There’s so many barriers,” she says. “We saved the venues before we saved the people. And now this is supposed to help somewhat save the people, right. But it’s not.” Even if venues pull through using the Venue Relief portion of the Bridge Fund or other sources of money, they won’t be able to thrive unless artists and performers survive the pandemic as well. “I’m just worried about our people,” she says.

Byrd has heard from a lot of people in the music and entertainment scene who have been struggling, like the DJs she recently hosted a discussion with on the social media platform Clubhouse. “I’ve dealt with people that have had depression, suicide, that have reached out to us and we’ve been able to help. People who have lost houses. These are the things that the city doesn’t really see.” 

The Supporting Businesses Program is a competitive grant, so not everyone who applies for funding will get it. The grant awards vary from $5,000 to $50,000 and must be spent before July 31. It’s challenging to find an individual who’d be eligible for the grant, but City Paper managed to speak to one person: Aaron Miller.

About five years ago, Miller started his own businesses called GoldPants Rentals, which offers audio and visual equipment for events. It went from a side hustle to his full-time job in 2018. Before the pandemic, he worked events at Sauf Haus, Public Bar Live, and Rock & Roll Hotel. “And then it just kind of grew to the point where most of my revenue is coming from corporate,” he explains. “I would go into an embassy when they were doing some sort of panel discussion. I would provide the wireless microphones and audio support there.” 

The pandemic crushed his business. He’s worked only a handful of outdoor gigs during the public health emergency. His business has gotten by with a federal loan and $1,000 local grant for small businesses. He meets the Bridge Fund requirement of having a minimum of $20,000 of annual operating expenses because he’d taken out a loan in January to invest in his business. It was easy to hit the target after he spent $30,000 via the loan on new equipment. Miller applied but says he was ineligible for unemployment benefits, PUA included, because he was a small business owner who didn’t collect a paycheck. (He’s a business of one who hired contractors sometimes for gigs.) He’s now working at a restaurant, but business got slow in November. 

“Oh, my God, if I had been eligible [for unemployment], I would not be eligible for this extra grant. That doesn’t make any sense because the pay, even if I had been eligible, wouldn’t have been very much money, especially once the federal subsidy wore out,” Miller says. 

“The business has lost money for sure. But me personally … I’m not, like, really struggling. It sucks a lot, but I can still put food on the table,” he continues. “If somebody contacted me today, I’d be able to put on an event. I’m technically open, but there’s just no business.”

This story has been updated to include comment from DMPED.