Major and Cookie Freeman

Major and Cookie Freeman are ready to open anytime at Loco Billy's Wild Moon Saloon in Stanwood.

Many businesses around Stanwood and Camano are tackling the challenge of operating at low levels during a pandemic. 

While stores and restaurants have been able to open with take out and limited capacity, some businesses have shut down.

Businesses that gather people for music, theater and dance have been closed since March. 

Some venues, like Pub 282 on Camano Island, offer music and dance as a side to the main course of food and drink. It’s a rare venue that’s still open to offer take-out.

Stanwood Hotel was a popular haunt for karaoke, but remains closed until further notice. 

The Conway Muse, a popular live music venue with restaurant and bar, is also closed for now. 

Forté Music Dance Art near Utsalady Bay on north Camano has quietly focused on art by appointment.

The Stanwood Area Historical Society depends on revenues from holding fundraising events or renting out the Floyd Norgaard Cultural Center. The Floyd, museum and D.O. Pearson House have been closed since March. During this down time, the nonprofit organization held its annual history tour online. Then the group focused on renovations at the Floyd, painting the weathered exterior and replacing rotted wood.

Local businesses are adapting to the pandemic and its restrictions differently, but some, like Stanwood Cinemas, are living on loans.

‘We’re at zero’

For Cookie and Major Freeman, night club business was off to a brisk start in 2020. Loco Billy’s Wild Moon Saloon on the west side of Stanwood was five years old and drawing big crowds — even in January and February, which is traditionally slow for live music and dancing.

Then the coronavirus hit.

On March 9, Stanwood’s mayor advised them to close. A March 14 show was canceled, and tickets had to be refunded. Then the waiting began.

As spring turned to summer, COVID-19 took top billing. The Freemans refunded deposits as facility rentals canceled — class reunions, wedding receptions.

The club is sparkly clean, with empty chairs and barstools set in neat rows ready to open.

The bills still roll in, including utilities, mortgage, insurance and even music rights.

“We’ve had to deplete all of our reserves. We’re at zero,” Major Freeman said.

“Before, we relied on tips and business income to pay our mortgage and personal bills, like groceries. Now we’ve racked up our credit cards just to get by,” Cookie Freeman said.

Music venues pay big fees to performing rights organizations, such as BMI, ASCAP, and SESAC, to license music played in their business, live or recorded, according to venues size and number of days open.

“That’s a big expense that people don’t know we have,” Cookie Freeman said.

The Freemans paid their $12,000 annual fee in December. After closing, they worked six months to convince the music licensing company to issue credit to use when they reopen.

Falling through cracks

Cookie Freeman had hoped that Loco Billy’s would get about $31,000 from the Paycheck Protection Program.

Loco Billy’s doesn’t have employees on the payroll. Instead they hire musicians, bands, dance instructors, sound engineers and security — up to $16,000 per month. It’s all reported on tax forms, which is allowed in CARES fine print, Cookie Freeman said. In the end, the application wasn’t accepted.

Loco Billy’s was classified as a Phase 4 business, the last category of businesses to reopen.

“What are we going to do? We can’t have dancing or music,” Cookie Freeman said. “We considered opening a restaurant with a limited menu. We’re not known as a place for food. Now you can’t have indoor dining, so I’m glad we didn’t do that.”

They’ve gotten some financial relief that’s helped a lot, they say, but it’s a fraction of expenses. Between the city, county and state, Loco Billy’s received about $16,000. The Snohomish PUD shaved a couple of months off their electric bill, and customers even pitched in some donations. The Freemans are hopeful to see what the “Save Our Stages” funding offers them.

Waiting and wondering

The Freemans aren’t happy with being closed. They say it’s unfair that music venues can’t open the same as stores. They’ve installed an air purification system. People would be less likely to gather unsafely in homes if they have somewhere to go. They wonder if people will come back when they reopen.

“It’s going to be like opening a new business,” Major Freeman said. “We’re willing to build the business back up. But who’s to say the government won’t shut us down again when something else comes up?”

With the new restrictions that lump Stanwood with Seattle in Phase 1, the Freemans have no idea how much longer they have to wait. They worry about the musicians who don’t have incomes now and the customers who made Loco Billy’s their second home.

“Some people have a strenuous home front. They’re not happy, but then can come in and get away for a while,” Major Freeman said. “People have said over and over, it feels safe and comfortable when they come here.”

Regular dance customers post frustrations on Facebook. Dancing was their exercise. For now, they can dance in their living rooms to the internet radio at locobillys.com.

“I’m hoping with the vaccine that we can open sometime next summer,” Cookie Freeman said. “I don’t know how it’s going to go. That’s a long time not to be open.”

‘Heads above water’

Stanwood Cinemas has been closed since March 17, except for the three weeks in mid-October when businesses briefly opened then closed again when COVID-19 cases spiked.

The movie complex, tucked away in the uptown shopping center on 72nd Avenue, has gotten by on relief grants and loans.

Jeff Brein, managing partner of Faraway Entertainment, has his eyes on the new CARES Act, signed into law this month, that includes Save Our Stages and Screens funds for closed venues.

The government is developing the web portal now that should go live in a couple of weeks. The date to apply is not yet set. Brein doesn’t know how much the cinema will be offered, but he remains hopeful.

The funding is to help with costs incurred between March and December 2020, with a supplemental grant for expenses incurred through June 30, 2021. Details are to be announced.

“With this new money, we hope to make it to spring. Phase 2, we’ll be at 25% capacity, which isn’t a lot, but it’s something,” he said. “We’re all very optimistic we will get through this, and in time things will get back to normal.”

While the movie theater was closed, Brein has made use of $80,000-$90,000 in loans and relief funds to pay mortgage payments, utilities and general operational expenses.

“It helps keep our heads above water and pay basic expenses, but I don’t know long we can last without revenue,” he said. “We still have a lot of bills to pay, back bills, property taxes. Nothing stops when it comes to bills, but most of the folks are willing to work with us.”

Contact reporter Peggy Wendel at pwendel@scnews.com or 360-416-2189.

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