Kellogg, Minn. – Oprah once called Lark Toys, with its carved wooden creations and antique carousel, “Joys R Us.”
The write-up in a national magazine brought calls, congratulations and crowds of shoppers trekking down Hwy. 61 along the bluffs of the Mississippi to the toy shop with the mini llamas grazing out back.
Then one day Lark Toys stood up to the anti-maskers — and found out what really pleases the crowds.
Oprah got Lark Toys about 15,000 likes and views on Facebook. Kicking out a couple who blustered and bellowed and threatened staff when asked to put on a mask? That post’s been viewed half a million times.
“People from around the country were asking, ‘How can we order from you?’ ” said Ron Gray, one of three generations of the Gray-Burlingame family working at their shop last week.
He sat at his post near the front entrance, checking to make sure customers were masked up and spaced out as they walked into a space that is part toy shop, part toy workshop, part toy museum and all escape from pandemic gloom and isolation.
One door leads to shop shelves crowded with bright toys, books, games and puzzles. A hidden entrance behind a swinging bookshelf leads to the Happiness, a future community performance and meeting space. Displays of antique toys line the halls leading to the ice cream shop and a carousel that gets disinfected between every ride.
“I really think people are getting it now,” said Kathy Gray. “We’re all in this together and it makes a difference if we behave as if we are.”
Following a two-month pandemic shutdown, Lark Toys reopened in mid-May with mask and social distancing requirements and hand-washing stations. Not just to protect their customers, but also longtime staffers who are in their 80s.
“We had to get thicker skin over the first month or two,” as a small portion of customers bristled and blustered when asked to put on a mask, Miranda Gray-Burlingame said.
The governor’s mask mandate took some of the pressure off, although the store owners still get inconsiderate anti-maskers calling them fascists as they’re turned away at the door.
None have been as angry or threatening as the family in late July who hollered and blustered and tried to claim their entire family of four were somehow medically exempt — but you’re not allowed to ask why, they claimed, which is not how HIPAA works. Eventually, they drove off, flipping the bird, with their poor children in tow.
“We’re all struggling through this weirdness,” Gray-Burlingame said. “The more kindness we can lend one another, the better off we’ll be.”
Nobody likes wearing masks. We wear them because otherwise we could spread coronavirus around and most of us care whether our neighbors live or die. This is Minnesota, not Sturgis.
One Lark staffer, a former preschool teacher, likes to compliment the masked children she meets.
“Oh, you’re doing such a great job wearing your mask,” she tells each child who comes up to her register, masked up like the little superheroes they are.
Maybe that’s something we all need to hear: You’re doing good in a bad time, Minnesota.
Nearly all of you are looking out for your neighbors. Most of you are wearing your masks. Almost none of you are screaming at shopkeepers. Barely any of your masks are swastika masks.
Masks matter. Just ask the Mayo Clinic epidemiologists.
In the spring, Mayo mandated masks for everyone on its campuses. Staff, visitors, patients; everyone but the occasional visiting vice president.
Before the mask requirement on April 21, nearly a third of staffers who tested positive for COVID-19 were infected at work. Once the masks were in place, the workplace infection rate dropped to less than 4%.
“We saw a drastic, drastic decrease,” said Dr. Jack O’Horo, an infectious disease expert at Mayo. “We do know that masking really drastically cut down on risk to our staff.”
Masks aren’t a magic bullet. If anything, they’re more like bullet-resistant vests. Strap one on, wash your hands, keep your distance, and maybe we’ll all make it through this.
“You’re wearing the mask for everyone else, not just for yourself,” O’Horo said. “And you’re hoping everybody else is wearing the mask to protect you. This is part of a comprehensive strategy of layered protection. … It’s like combining a seat belt with an air bag.”
Most people, it turns out, like playing it safe during a deadly global pandemic.
“The response to this has been people saying to us, ‘Thank you so much for sticking to your mask thing, because last week I brought my daughter who’s in cancer treatment and we felt safe.’ And ‘I brought my aged mother,’” said Kathy Gray. “It brought tears to my eyes, because that’s what we’re here for. To welcome people and lift them up and for heaven’s sake, to keep them safe.”
For more information about Lark Toys, visit larktoys.com. If you really don’t want to wear a mask, they’d be happy to provide you with curbside pickup.