Bricks & Minifigs Canby, an independently owned franchise of a nationwide collection of stores selling new and used Lego sets, pieces and figures, reopened to the public Saturday without requiring employees to wear face coverings — one of five mandatory guidelines the governor’s office has set for retail stores to limit the spread of Covid-19.
Later that day, the president of Bricks & Minifigs North America told the Canby Now Podcast that Thornton’s comments did not represent the brand and that, per its franchise agreement, the Canby store would be expected to follow all federal, state and local regulations.
Owner David Thornton explained his position in a video on his store’s Facebook page Friday afternoon that has since been removed. He began by channeling his inner Nancy Pelosi, holding up a copy of Governor Kate Brown’s guidelines for reopening Oregon, then tearing them in half.
“I’m not following that advice. It’s not right. It’s not. I’m sorry,” he said, then held up a copy of the United States Constitution. “This is the only advice I’m following here, folks. We’ve played their games enough. We can’t do this much longer. I can’t handle it.”
Thornton said copies of the retail guidelines have been posted at the store, as mandated, along with his “responses” to each, explaining how the guidelines are being implemented or why they are not.
One of the guidelines “requires all employees to wear cloth, paper or disposable face coverings,” and also says businesses must provide these masks for their staff.
Thornton said he has made face coverings available for his staff, and they are welcome to wear them if they choose, but he is not forcing them to, and he will not wear one himself. To him, it’s a matter of personal freedom, as he explains in the video.
“This is a personal thing,” he said. “I can’t mandate it. I can’t force my employees and I can’t force my customers to wear a mask in my store. It won’t work for me. It barely works now. And if I can’t see the smiles, if I have to hide, if I have to pretend that wearing a mask is keeping me safe instead of keeping me quiet, then I can’t face your children and I can’t face the families we serve.”
Thornton said he would also not force customers to wear masks in the store, which is not required under the guidelines, only “strongly encouraged.”
“I’m not going to put X’s on the floor,” he said. “I’m not going to force your children and your families to interact with my employees through Plexiglass. I’m not going to make you guys line up outside and wait your turn and only touch the things that you’re supposed to touch. No, no, no, that’s not what Bricks & Minifigs Canby is.”
Thornton also addressed one of the store’s central features: the bulk tables, huge bins of assorted Lego pieces that are accessible to customers for self-service. The sound of kids raking through the thousands of bulk pieces is part of the background music at Bricks & Minifigs Canby, along with, of course, The Lego Movie soundtrack.
“This is going to a shop-at-your-own-risk environment,” Thornton said. “We’re doing the best we can to keep it clean. The store’s looking really good now and we’re going to try to maintain it to the best of our ability. But I can’t keep the bulk tables clean. You can’t keep it clean.”
In the video, Thornton also aired his frustrations with the Covid-19 shutdowns and the impact they have had on his and other businesses. At the start of the pandemic, his store closed to the public, pulled together an online store and drive-thru service, changed their product line since browsing would no longer be possible.
“We did everything they asked,” he said.
It didn’t work.
“I can’t do it any longer,” he said. “This doesn’t work as a drive-thru. It doesn’t work as an e-store. It doesn’t work without bulk tables. It doesn’t work. It’s not what it’s about. And if someone wants to stop me, they can stop me.”
At several points in the video, Thornton invited people to disagree with him. He invited them to follow the guidelines that make them comfortable: Wear a mask and gloves, or don’t. Wear only a bathing suit if you want (just please wear shoes).
“I believe that human beings were meant to be free,” he said. “I believe they have personal freedom to love who they want, worship who they want. I believe they can follow any medical practice they want as long as they’re not hurting anybody. And my medical practices have not hurt anybody.”
The store’s celebration of personal freedom included a free gift for the first 300 visitors: a custom-printed Constitution tile “giv[ing] your Minifigures the Inalienable Rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” according to the social media post announcing the promotion (which has also been deleted).
In the end, Thornton said he couldn’t follow mandates that he felt so fundamentally change what his store is all about.
“The kids need a place for magic,” he said. “And I’m not going to turn this into, you know, a robot processing zone. If all of this is distilled into the financial transaction, to just get you in, get the product as quickly as possible and get you out of here, that’s not the business I’m in. I’m not in that business, and I’m not going to do it.”
Ammon McNeff, president of the Utah-based Bricks & Minifigs North America, said he talked with Thornton Saturday after the CNP‘s story was published and they came to an understanding.
“He’s obviously very impassioned about the issues at hand, which have been difficult for many of our stores and our entire franchise system,” McNeff said. “But while we applaud his right to express his views on a personal level, he was not authorized to do so using the franchise brand platform that is Bricks & Minifigs.”
McNeff said Bricks & Minifigs would work with the Canby store to either bring it into compliance with the statewide guidelines for retail occupancy — including those pertaining to Covid-19 — or transition back to a form of serving customers where masks and other restrictions would not be in place (such as e-commerce or curbside pickup).
“If he’s going to have his store open, he will be following the state guidelines in that regard,” McNeff said. “Our No. 1 concern is the safety of our customers, employees and owners.”