For Barbara Koen, all the talk of local shops reopening has a more bitter than sweet ring to it.
After 16 years of reigning over Main Street's Dress Code with a great eye for designer vintage, COVID-19 has pushed Koen to put her beloved consignment shop up for sale. The loss of business from mandated closure during the pandemic combined with concern for her husband —whose immune system is severely compromised by myasthenia gravis — have made it impossible for her to continue, she says.
But, says Koen, she is not leaving Main Street without a fight. She is joining what her Salem-based lawyer Lou Muggeo calls a growing "groundswell of small retail businesses" that are challenging insurance companies to honor their claims for pandemic-mandated "business interruption."
Small business policy holders such as Koen "pay high premiums for business loss interruption insurance and they think they're covered," says Muggeo. But in the months since March 10 when Gov. Charlie Baker mandated the statewide closure of "non-essential" businesses, small retailers have joined restaurateurs in learning that their "all risks" policies do not include the risk of pandemic, or mandated closure.
Muggeo and his son and partner Jared J. Muggeo say they're hearing from more and more local small retailers who believe the insurance companies are playing a game of bait and switch. "Since the governor has mandated a state-wide shutdown ... logic would dictate that coverage would be available," said the Muggeos in an email to the Times. "Most business policies, however, contain myriad exclusions ... (and) exceptions to exclusions. Since each policy is different we are advising our clients to calculate the value of their loss and file a claim ... the bigger the claim, the more it's worth pursuing."
For small retailers like Koen, who believe that big retailers have already had the unfair advantage of remaining fully open for business during the pandemic, this is maddening. "Because Walmart and Target sell food, they are classified as essential, but there is no cordoning off of the rest of their merchandise," Koen says. Meanwhile, she can't pay her consigners for their unsold merchandise.
Anyone who knows Koen —and most thrifty, fashion-minded women on Cape Ann do — knows she's feisty, which is one of the things that kept her in business for 16 "cozy, funky" years. With the music pumping, Dress Code was really like a dress-up party; and the life of the party was Keon.
"We gotta lotta Prada," she'll tell you in one of the shop's last Facebook postings. Prada, Pucci, Gucci, Chanel, Donna Koran, Ralph Lauren were just some of the labels that came from a bank of 7,000-plus consignees who'd send used designer clothes from as far away as Paris to be resold at a fraction of original cost.
Dress Code, which opened in 1996, is "an institution, a social hub," the antidote to the mall, said Elizabeth Gauthier, who lives upstairs from the 800-foot shop at 148 Main St.
The business, which goes on the market this week with Coldwell Banker, is still packed with inventory that packed the place with customers. The decor is '80s retro, but the fashions go all the way back to the '40s. Koen, who estimates she does about a quarter of a million dollars in sales a year, says in the 16 years since she bought the shop from its previous owner, it's been "a lot of customers, a lot of love." And a lot of insurance premium payments.
"You pay your life into these places, you expect to get your money's worth," says Koen.
She may, thanks to a bill in the state Senate, SD.2888, an "Act Concerning Business Interruption Insurance.”
With some 39 legislators as co-sponsors, the proposal has been referred to the Joint House-Senate Committee on Rules, and the legislation will apply to insureds — like Koen herself — with 150 or fewer full-time-equivalent employees in Massachusetts with effective policies, or policies that become effective before the date that the governor rescinds his emergency declaration.
Joann MacKenzie may be contacted at 978-675-2708, or firstname.lastname@example.org.