'We Need Help': Improv Theater Owner Struggling To Stay In Business Amid Coronavirus Closures

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Exterior of the iO theater in Chicago, Ill., Feb. 26, 2019. (Danielle Scruggs for Here & Now)
Exterior of the iO theater in Chicago, Ill., Feb. 26, 2019. (Danielle Scruggs for Here & Now)

Comedy theaters are among the many entertainment outlets struggling with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.

The iO Theater in Chicago was mandated to close until further notice. Owner Charna Halpern says without an income or support from the local government, businesses like the iO won’t have the means to pay their employees or taxes.

“Something very unprecedented has happened and the game of life has got to stop as we know it,” she says. “Our local governments have to say, ‘We're going to take care of you.’ ”

Halpern says her bank was “lovely” in helping her defer her mortgage, and she wishes her local government would show the same support for her business.

Though the iO can make some money through online writing classes, Halpern says that’s not enough to pay the $100,000 she owes in property taxes.

Plus, local officials and labor unions have called for businesses to pay employees for 15 days of sick leave. But Halpern says she doesn’t know where the money for her $80,000 payroll would come from.

With grocery stores empty and people panicked about an uncertain future, government action like extending the state tax deadline for three months isn’t enough to help the iO and her employees, she says.

“When we finally open, we're going to need help,” Halpern says. “It's going to be a while before we're going to get back on track, and they have to help us.”

On top of theaters closing, many aspiring actors have lost income from their side jobs in the restaurant industry or the gig economy.

But filing for unemployment is part of the problem as well because resource websites have been crashing due to increased traffic, she says. When she tries to apply for a Small Business Association loan, for example, she says she’s bumped off the website.

Whether the iO survives will depend on whether the local government steps up to help, she says.

“All the bills, all the salaries, that comes from our income. We don't have an income,” Halpern says. “So we have to see if they're really going to help.”

The comedy theater owner says nothing has been making her laugh recently. Instead, she worries about the future of the iO and other small businesses in her community.

“We need help and it's really got to be something for everyone. We have to be able to get back on our feet,” she says. “It isn't just the iO. It's everyone.”

Chris Bentley produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O'DowdAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on March 27, 2020.


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Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.


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Allison Hagan Digital Producer, Here & Now
Allison Hagan is a digital producer for Here & Now.



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