During a cold winter for businesses in Vermont, The Savoy Theater managed to stay open.
The small, independent theater, with a focus on indie films and documentaries, reopened in September and closed for just four weeks over the holiday season, owner James O’Hanlon said.
It’s a rare exception to the many movie theaters that have been and have remained closed for most of the pandemic. But, he said, “I don’t see large numbers of” customers.
“My audience is very reluctant to return,” he said. “I still have people saying, ‘When are you opening?’ and I’m like, ‘I’ve been open.’”
The theater of Montpelier is not the only company struggling, despite the reopening of the state economy, as the number of vaccinations rises and the number of cases falls.
Data collected from mobile phones, provided by the Ministry of Financial Regulation, shows that activity is generally increasing. The median activity for all sectors is 110% from the 2019 baseline, meaning people are going to shops and other businesses 10% more than that year.
But that median covers a wide variation per sector. For example, lawn and garden stores are attracting customers at 188% of the baseline, meaning they see almost twice as many customers. Nursing homes, drugstores and building materials dealers all had above-average activity.
Far below the rest of the pack, at less than 67% of their normal activity, are hotels, museums, spectator sports and cinemas, which had only 31% of their pre-pandemic traffic in May.
Most retail traffic has returned to baseline or above, with the exception of clothing stores. Fast food restaurants rose 131% from the average above baseline, but full-service restaurants only hit 86% from the average.
Betsy Bishop, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, said the data confirmed what she saw during the pandemic: a total shutdown in the spring of 2020, followed by a slow reopening in the summer and fall, then tightening as cases worsened in November.
Now people book weddings and feel comfortable going out, she said.
But she wants Vermonters to understand, “Being open doesn’t equal being OK.”
“So many companies are in such a recession that there is that debt. There are bills to be paid from that period,” she said. “If you find yourself back at that summer 2019 activity, well, that’s great. But you have to get there stand even more above to recoup what you had.”
And businesses need workers, a struggle during the state’s workforce shortage. She said she had just heard of a cafe owner struggling to keep her doors open due to understaffing.
“She said to me, ‘What should I do?’” Bishop said.
She blamed multiple factors, including unemployment benefits, Vermonters retiring, a long-term population loss, and a lack of childcare facilities.
“There’s not one thing that affects the workforce, and a lot of those things are difficult,” she said.
The chamber has also called for more money for entrepreneurs, despite the grants and loans granted in 2020.
“The need has turned out to be enormous,” she says.
The Savoy Theater was one of the companies that received grants, which allowed O’Hanlon to keep the screens running even when few customers came. He also attributed their relative success to their uniqueness as indie theater as larger theaters rely more on distributors’ demands.
Still, he estimates that the company suffered a 67% loss of revenue during the pandemic. Even that significant figure placed him in the lowest category of loss when he recently applied for a theater grant. The highest category is more than 90% loss.
It’s also telling that many theaters that VTDigger has found in the state are still closed or have limited offers.
Closed theaters include Roxy Cinemas in Burlington, Palace 9 in South Burlington, Paramount Twin Cinema in Barre, City Cinema in Newport, the Welden Theater in St Albans and the Big Picture Theater in Waitsfield.
Stowe Cinema, Latchis Theater in Brattleboro, Essex Cinemas, Bijou Cineplex 4 in Morrisville and the Capitol Theater in Montpelier have at least some showings open.
After being closed for 15 months, Capitol Theater opened for weekend screenings in June, with bigger budget hits than The Savoy. Fred Bashara, owner of the theater, said it felt like the right time to start.
“People were asking about it and people were happy and satisfied who came in,” he said. Although vaccinated people were not required to wear a mask, “people sat down and separated.”
The theater was costing thousands of dollars a month even when closed, he said, due to heating and other overhead costs.
The film industry didn’t do them any favors either. Many films have been withdrawn or delayed from theatrical distribution due to the pandemic. “We can’t serve seven screens with just one movie,” he said.
Distribution issues are one of the reasons Big Picture in Waitsfield has remained closed, says Claudia Becker, co-owner of the theater. “It’s going to be hard to get content that isn’t already on Amazon or Netflix,” she said.
The cinema has an affiliated restaurant that has also remained largely closed, except when the Paycheck Protection Program allowed Becker to hold small takeout days. They plan to reopen the restaurant in July, but the theater itself is still closed for a while.
The theater’s financial burden was unbelievable, she said. It was also tough for her to lose the employees who felt like family and to see how the loss of the theater affected the local community, she said.
“It’s a playground. It’s a beer garden. It’s a restaurant. It’s an art gallery. It’s a music venue. It was the hub of so many things,” she said. “And to drop that one was definitely very noticeable and difficult.”
She said Vermonters should come out to support these companies that are “hanging by their fingernails” waiting for a chance to reopen.
“The entrepreneurs have really braved the storm because they believe in what they do,” she said. “So the support of the Vermont community as we reopen is super important.”