Musician Max Baca knew he was running out of options.
After whittling down his life savings trying to stay afloat while the coronavirus pandemic brought his live performances to a grinding halt, Baca knew he needed to look outside of his hometown of San Antonio for gigs to pay the bills.
That desperation took the guitarist and vocalist to Lafayette, Louisiana, where he found a few paying gigs playing with a stripped-down version of his Grammy Award-winning band Los Texmaniacs.
“I still gotta pay my mortgage because there’s no such thing as a deferred payment” from his lender, Baca said, noting that all his bills were urgently coming due.
It was a decision that has now put his career in jeopardy.
After Baca returned home to San Antonio following a gig at the Hideaway on Lee restaurant on Nov. 7, he started to feel ill.
“Next thing you know, I’m in the fetal position in my room,” he said, suffering from what he suspected were symptoms of COVID-19.
A rapid test at an area urgent care clinic confirmed Baca’s positive diagnosis, but Northeast Baptist Hospital had no rooms available to admit him. He acquired an oxygen concentrator from his regular CPAP provider to self-administer air if he encountered difficulty breathing.
By the afternoon of Nov. 12, Baca was coughing almost constantly, speaking briefly between painful fits. “I’m trying to fight it as much as possible,” he said. “I hope it don’t get any worse. If it gets any worse, I’ll be back at the hospital.”
Later that day, Baca was admitted to the Baptist ICU.
Fellow musician Henry Brun had been in touch and reported that, as of early last week, Baca was able to breathe on his own, “which is a good sign, but nevertheless [he’s] still in bad shape.”
Baca has been receiving treatment for 10 days since his arrival at the hospital. From his hospital bed, he texted last week that it “has been tough … but I’m hanging in there.”
Elusive financial relief
Both Brun and Baca said they’ve been waiting in vain for emergency relief funding to arrive. Being caught between whether they’re defined as artists/musicians or small-business sole proprietors has created confusion as to which funding sources they should pursue for help. Both decided to forgo applying for the SA CARES 4 Art emergency relief grants for individual artists distributed in late September and instead applied to the City of San Antonio COVID-19 Recovery Grant Program for Small Businesses and Nonprofits of up to $75,000, administered by LiftFund.
Having lost an estimated 98 percent of his income over the past eight months of the pandemic, Brun said he’s barely hanging on, waiting anxiously to hear whether he will receive funding.
Baca also applied on behalf of himself and the five musicians he regularly employs. Facing the end of extra $600 monthly unemployment benefits that are soon to run out was one reason he felt the need to start playing live again despite the risks.
“When you play music for a living, … [you] depend on every gig possible,” Baca said. Throughout the pandemic, he said he’d kept his musicians on the payroll as long as he could, “because they depend on this, they have families to feed, [but] I am completely tapped now. I’ve exhausted all of my savings, my whole life savings. … Every penny I’ve saved, I’ve exhausted it because of this virus, and then to find out that I end up getting the son of a bitch.”
Late Monday, Baca texted to say his LiftFund application had been declined. “That really sucks,” he wrote. “I have no money, no insurance, fighting for my life with covid now!”
Celina Peña, the LiftFund administrator working closely with the City to distribute the recovery grants, said applications are evaluated according to “an equity scoring criteria approved by the San Antonio City Council Economic and Workforce Council Committee to equitably distribute funds to those businesses most in need” and that more than 4,200 applications had been received from businesses in Bexar County.
Baca’s rejection letter plainly stated, “Due to the limited funding and significant number of applications received, your business will not be receiving a grant through this program.”
Monica Ramos, public information officer for Bexar County, said she doesn’t know whether the new Commissioners Court, awaiting its first session Jan. 12, will consider additional funding programs. The recovery grant program, in addition to other emergency relief programs, have been funded through the now largely depleted federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act passed by the House of Representatives in May remains in limbo, with further discussions between the House, Senate, and White House stalled.
LiftFund President and CEO Janie Barrera said the municipalities distributing grants define the criteria of eligibility. Barrera said USAA recently donated $2 million to “triage” struggling small businesses already affiliated with the LiftFund. She also said she’d hypothetically be open to allocating some percentage of future funds to small businesses and sole proprietors that are not already members but are willing to participate in the fund’s training and empowerment programs.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who chairs the City Council’s Culture and Neighborhood Services committee, said he’s heard feedback from arts-interested constituents “asking us to also look at relief for other areas not included” in his current Art Works proposal, which does not specifically include performing arts.
“Of course [I] would be supportive of relief funding for musicians who desperately are in need,” he said when asked if any such programs are being discussed at the Council level.
As the U.S. awaits further word on whether additional pandemic relief is forthcoming, Baca looks hopefully toward recovering his health, though he is unsure what he’ll do for money if the entertainment industry shutdown continues. Having been a professional musician from an early age, he said he has few options, and a bad knee, for example, would keep him from doing manual labor.
Despite becoming an embodiment of the dangers of COVID to live performers, Baca said his only option would be to continue to look for paying gigs despite the risk.
“We’ve got to go out and do what we do, because that’s the only thing I know how to do,” he said.