DANVERS — Owners of Bella Sera Bridal say fitting room restrictions under the state's phased reopening plan have made it nearly impossible for brides to say "yes" to the dress.
Clothing stores and other retailers have been allowed to reopen with the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic lessening in Massachusetts, but social distancing guidelines to prevent the disease's spread require all retail fitting rooms to remain closed and bar customers from trying on clothes.
"The only way we operate is if people can actually try on our sample gowns," said Lisa Almeida, who co-owns Bella Sera Bridal with Heidi Nicholson. The bridal and mother-of-the-bride shop has been in business for 15 years and has 12 employees at its present location along Route 114.
"We are not a cash and carry business in any way," Almeida said. "All of our dresses are samples."
Typically, brides book an appointment at the shop and try on a series of sample dresses. When a bride finds the right gown, Bella Sera Bridal orders it — a process that can take several months.
The fitting room restriction means brides can't come in to try on dresses, which is a big part of the experience.
"Again, because they can't change clothing in our store, we are not supposed to be hosting alterations," said Almeida.
The store was already making preparations for fittings, making sure employees and guests wear masks and wash their hands when they arrive, and holding phone chats and reviewing pictures of gowns in advance of the appointment. Gowns would be placed in fitting rooms to avoid touching other inventory, and there would be a limit of two people by the bride's side during the appointment.
There would also be a two-hour window for appointments to allow the store to sanitize areas and steam gowns with an industrial steamer. The 4,800 square-foot showroom has plenty of space for people to spread out.
Staff were also trained in how to conduct a hands-off appointment, with bride's friends using clips to help fit the sample or advise them on taking measurements.
The shop has been dropping dresses off at bride's houses and then conducting a video chat on Zoom, but it's nothing compared to the business they were able to do before the coronavirus pandemic.
"It's just a matter of convincing the powers that be we can do this," said Almeida, who said she has spoken to potential customers who are heading to bridal shops in New Hampshire.
Jon Hurst, the president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said the last thing he wants to see is more sales heading north from the North Shore.
Hurst said most states have allowed fitting rooms to open, as long as they are regularly sanitized and the clothing is kept off the rack for 24 hours.
There should be a way to accommodate bridal shops and by-only appointment sales in the second stage of the "cautious" Phase 2 when personal services that require close personal contact like nail salons, tattoo parlors and message therapy are allowed to resume, Hurst said. Shops that are appointment-only would be able to manage cleanings of garments and their fitting rooms.
Alan Gibeley, president of the high-end Giblees Menswear, which is located downstairs from Bella Sera Bridal, said by the standards the state has set, the inability to use his dressing rooms is "extremely detrimental to the high-end clothing store," which attracts customers who want to be able to feel the clothing, try it on and be fitted.
One solution, he said, would be to hold an item that has been tried on for at least 48 hours.
The store, he said, has been busy.
However, customers have been taking clothing home, trying it on, then returning it, which Gibeley said could be even more dangerous, given the number of people with which the clothing might come in contact, than if the store just held it and took precautions.