Clinton Street Theater and COVID-19

All of this leaves us, and most other small businesses, in the position of trying to navigate these rough seas with incomplete and conflicting official guidance. In many cases, entrepreneurs are the ones setting public policy by our own proactive actions.

We hope this message finds you safe and well.

The current pandemic has caught all of us by surprise, and events have been moving so fast that it is difficult to know if the rock-solid plan you've made today will make any sense in tomorrow's light.

We've adjusted our theater's plan several times in the past weeks, and now is when fashion would dictate that we make our drastic closing announcement accompanied by our commitment to public safety, followed by a happy message of encouragement for the community, completed with an appeal to help the theater in this time of trouble.

But we've never been fashionable, and it's just not in our DNA to let this pass without sharing our political opinions and making a call to arms.

I want to first share a bit of our history to give you some context.

This event, though “unpresidented,” is not exactly unprecedented for the Clinton Street Theater. In operation since 1915, CST started in the shadow of a world at war and faced the Spanish Flu epidemic a few short years later in 1918. This is from a wikipedia entry about the flu quarantine in Portland at that time:

"In the beginning of October, a set of slides was prepared to be displayed at theaters, with information on flu safety, such as the rhyme 'Smother the sneeze / To prevent disease.' Despite these plans, theaters were shut down less than a week later, when the ban went into effect."

I have no idea how long that event lasted, nor do I know the details of the theater's operating history during polio and measles outbreaks, wars, depressions and recessions, and the gentrifications and challenges of a dynamically changing city. It's really quite a miracle that this single screen community auditorium has lasted so long; there have been many crazy souls along the way that pitched in to see it through countless hard times.

We purchased this business in April, 2012. We wanted to run the type of place that could make a difference in someone's life, not an outlet for corporate entertainment. We both always loved the arts, and personally we value experiences more than possessions. Many of our favorite memories involve creating or experiencing art, and doing that as part of a larger community. We also have a history of social activism, and wanted our politics to shape our endeavor by literally providing a stage for voices that were not often heard in Portland.

We've really hit our stride in the last couple of years, and we had caught up with the huge list of investments made for our space and equipment. We still hold some events simply because they concern important issues, even if they only draw 20 people, but it has started to become a regular experience for us to have sold out shows. Our neighbors, who once thought of the theater as a nuisance, now see us as a great asset to the corner; they have enjoyed the large and diverse crowds we draw to their businesses and have partnered with us to give back to the community.

That's our background, and I must say it's a unique business plan. But what is not unique is the dire situation now faced by us and so many others in our small business and arts communities.

We do not minimize the public health threat that this virus poses nor are we cavalier about a preventable loss of life. We do not dispute the science behind social distancing and disease control. We are not alone in being asked to make sacrifices and understand that no one has all the answers yet in this unfolding catastrophe.

But we are mad as hell about how this is going down, and think there is a failure of leadership on EVERY level of government at this time.

The most important tool in slowing the spread of this virus would be widespread reliable testing, and we all know how that is going. At the time of this writing, Oregon has tested 600 people out of a population of 4.2 million, or slightly more than 0.014%, and that's simply disgraceful.

Cutting interest rates and quantitative easing may be great for the markets and big business. Relief packages for airlines, travel and cruise companies will likely stop massive layoffs, but true accountability always seems to be missing in these deals, so there are no guarantees about that.

The payroll tax cut has been criticized because it's no good for the unemployed and it will go to many who do not absolutely need the assistance now, but that's missing the point. I first thought that cutting Social Security and Medicare payments for a time was simply an attempt to further put those programs in debt, so that down the road they could be attacked by the privatization ghouls. I have since realized that it will have a more sinister effect: once workers are used to getting their "whole" paycheck for a while, many of them will balk at resuming those withdrawals.

But my real issue is that it's the most vulnerable workers among us that are being asked to make the biggest sacrifices, and these folks are not hearing their needs addressed at all in these countless press conferences full of contradicting information. Who am I talking about? Everyone who works in the service industry, or as part of the gig economy, or in the arts. This is the backbone of our local economy—in many cases it is the folks who provide the daily function and color in our life. It's your favorite food cart, bakery, or corner restaurant. It's performers, artists, masseuses, hair cutters, local mechanic shops and ride-share drivers. It's all those local businesses of 1-20 employees. There are also many hourly shift workers employed by subcontractors and bigger companies who already had erratic work schedules based solely on business demand, and they will find themselves without work.

Most of the people I know make their living this way, and many will completely lose their source of income during this shutdown. If a full shutdown goes to two months or beyond, many of these small businesses will go into an unrecoverable tailspin, leading to a permanent loss of these jobs.

In the morning, the president's spokesperson is telling us that we should have a severe period of social distancing for at least two weeks. Our governor has limited public gatherings in the next month to a maximum of 250 people (larger than our auditorium), but the writing is on the wall that this number will drop based on restrictions appearing in other states. By evening, a spokesperson from the CDC is now recommending no gatherings over 50 people for the next EIGHT WEEKS. Our mayor has declared a toothless State of Emergency with a few bullet points describing minor actions, but has provided no guidance for local business.

Aside from providing conflicting information, our government does not appear to foresee the most obvious consequences of their announcements; how can you not be prepared for a flood of returning travelers from hot zones for the virus if you announce an upcoming travel ban? Announcements about the critical need for social distancing are made from those suits standing shoulder to shoulder, shaking hands as they approach the podium to take questions from a pack of reporters passing a microphone.


All of this leaves us, and most other small businesses, in the position of trying to navigate these rough seas with incomplete and conflicting official guidance. In many cases, entrepreneurs are the ones setting public policy by our own proactive actions.

After consulting with our clients and staff, we at the Clinton Street Theater have come to the difficult conclusion that we must close our doors at this time. We do not know how long this will last. We do not know how to plan for the months ahead, in a business that requires advance promotional efforts to drive audiences. We do not know what this means for our future.

We do know this will have a negative business impact on our neighboring small businesses. Since we are primarily supplied by a variety of small local vendors, we know our closing will make it harder for them to survive.

We will continue to our support our staff and try to keep our monthly bills paid by running up our personal debt and/or taking money from our retirement savings, but we know that this cannot continue indefinitely.

But we are not asking for your sympathy. Lani Jo and I are blessed, because we do not live off the income generated from this business—I have a stable day job that covers most of our bills. Although the complete failure of our theater would deal us a severe financial blow, we will not lose our home. We will not wonder where to find our next meal. And ultimately, this quarantine leaves me more time to spend with my wife and best friend, something that I value beyond all other things at this stage of life.

We ask you to consider the following actions:

  • Keep pressing your elected officials for concrete answers and real-world solutions. Public health mandates should be followed, but there is no reason to be compliant without making your voice heard.
  • Allow others to voice their experiences and issues without dismissive statements based on your personal view of what should be the norm in this abnormal time. We are all affected, but do not all travel the same road through this experience.
  • If you can afford to have food delivered from restaurants, please give preference to small local businesses. Over pay the order, and tip the carrier generously. You might think they are making bank through all of this, but in fact most restaurants make far less profit from take out, and are working this way just to survive.
  • For your own mental health, do not obsessively follow the news all day long. Stay informed, but give your mind and body ample relaxation and nourishment time appreciating art, literature, or the lovely spring weather.
  • Fight the inevitable disaster capitalism and government overreach. There will be attempts to make permanent negative changes to policy that directly affects your future based on these severe but temporary conditions. As the ACLU stated so well: "Use of emergency powers in this pandemic can be legitimate for measures grounded in science, when consistent with the need to protect health, safety, and civil liberties. At the same time, history teaches that our government is most prone to committing abuses in times of crisis."
  • Finally, social distancing does not mean that we should become insular. Reach out to those who are navigating this alone or excessively burdened by these restrictions. There will be many that require financial assistance to be sure, but all of us need to fill the emotional chasm left by this sudden ban of community assembly and involvement.

Be kind and stay healthy,

Roger Leigh