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Mall and shopping center owners around the country are getting ready to come face to face with a major legal hurdle: Co-tenancy clauses.

The coronavirus pandemic will accelerate the rate of permanent retail store closures, as sales shrink close to nothing with many shops temporarily shut to try to halt the spread of Covid-19. Liquidity also is drying up and finances are being squeezed. UBS is expecting there will be 100,000 stores permanently shut between now and the end of 2025.

Meantime, online sales as a percentage of total retail sales in the are expected to grow to 25% from 15% over that same timeframe, UBS analyst Michael Lasser said.

With another wave of department store closures inevitably looming, and some chains potentially filing for bankruptcy, landlords’ phones will likely be ringing — with retailers on the other line demanding rent reductions or outright saying, “I’m leaving your mall.”

Here’s how co-tenancy clauses work, on a basic level: They are typically built into the leases of the specialty tenants, like a Gap or an AT&T store, in the middle of a mall, or the shops situated along a grocery-anchored shopping centers, like a Big Lots or a TJ Maxx.

The clauses will say something along the lines of: If less than 80% of space is occupied at this property at any given time, or if a major, anchor tenant like a department store or a grocery store goes dark here, the tenant is allowed a break in rent. Or the tenant is given the ability to terminate a lease early. The clauses are meant to protect tenants when circumstances happen that are outside of their control.

Tom Mullaney, head of restructuring services at commercial real estate services firm JLL, said all of his retail clients are watching their co-tenancy clauses “like hawks.”

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