KELLOGG — Anger, rude gestures and social media are a volatile combination.
Nowhere was that more apparent than at Lark Toys on Wednesday when a couple claiming they and their children were medically exempt from wearing masks tried to enter store without masks and, according to one of the co-owners, without much explanation.
"This felt terrifying to us a little bit. It felt like assault," said Miranda Gray-Burlingame, who co-owns the store with her husband and parents.
Beginning July 25, the state of Minnesota required all individuals wear masks in indoor public buildings – stores, businesses, public buildings, etc. – and outdoors at venues where they are not able to maintain a 6-foot social distance. The state outlined five basic exemptions to the mandate, one of which reads, "People who have medical or other health conditions, disabilities or mental health, developmental, or behavioral needs that make it difficult to tolerate wearing a face covering," on the Minnesota Department of Health website.
Exempt or not, Gray-Burlingame wants people to show some patience when it comes to the state mandate for wearing masks in all public indoor venues.
"We have a frequent customer whose daughter can't tolerate a mask," Gray-Burlingame said. "We simply ask them to maintain social distancing. We’re not trying to turn people away. We’re just trying to be safe."
But, Gray-Burlingame said, some people are using the medical exemption as a cover for simply going places and not wearing a mask. While she did not say that was the case in Wednesday's incident, the anger and entitlement of the adults trying to enter the store with their two children is not the way to explain why a person doesn't have to wear a mask.
According to Gray-Burlingame, here's what happened:
A couple driving a car that was towing a boat parked across about six parking spaces right in front of the door. When Gray-Burlingame's father asked them to move to a different spot, the woman and two children got out of the car and tried to enter the store, sans masks.
The woman then held both her sons tightly to her, saying the whole family was medically exempt from wearing masks, and if they weren't allowed in without masks, they'd leave.
"I explained our concerns," Gray-Burlingame said. "We have a lot of older staff, and a lot of customers who don't feel safe without a mask." She also offered to try to figure out if there might be a way to accommodate them, such as curbside service.
About that time, the husband came in from the parking lot and "thrust them all forward, but the mother said there’s a problem."
At that point, Gray-Burlingame said, the man pulled out his phone and made threats to "shut our business down," she said.
"He demanded our names," she said. "He said he was going to report us. This is illegal and he would gladly take us down."
Eventually, Gray-Burlingame said, she became a little angry herself. She tried to get the family out of the store and even offered to call the police to end the dispute. At that point, the lack of masks wasn't the problem, she said. It was the man's belligerent attitude. The couple took out their phones and began taking pictures and video of Gray-Burlingame telling them to, perhaps, come back another time.
"It occurred to me, if they were taking photos of me, I should take a photo," she said.
One photo, which has generated thousands of comments and shares on Facebook along with the story, shows the couple angrily giving rude hand gestures to Gray-Burlingame as she watches them leave.
While exemptions to the mask mandate are a legitimate concern, Gray-Burlingame said on Thursday that she received a reply from the MDH saying a business can deny entrance to exempt individuals if there is a concern.
"We refused them entrance because of really bad behavior," she said. "These aren’t the days to quietly sit by and allow this behavior."