O’FALLON, Mo. — Jessica McBenge packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and three bottles of water. Her knee in a brace, she set up a camping chair outside the O’Fallon License Office. And she began waiting. And waiting.
On Wednesday, she was trying to replace her lost drivers license, but current circumstances didn’t make such a thing easy.
Motorists across the state are grappling with longer-than-normal lines at Missouri’s privately operated license offices. Extensions granted for licenses and plates that expired during the state’s stay-at-home order are ending, and license offices have begun to reopen.
Offices must now contend with normal traffic as well as a flood of people who weren’t required or able to visit the DMV during the stay-at-home order.
Ken Zellers, director of the Department of Revenue, said the higher volume of customers, and necessary safety measures offices are taking, such as daily deep cleaning and social distancing measures, were the reasons for the long lines.
The new age of social distancing means more people are waiting outside, and, at least in theory, staying 6 feet apart.
“They just keep bunching up,” said Cheyenne Morrison, the door attendant at the O’Fallon office, operated by Elle Management.
At 11 a.m. Wednesday, about 30 people were waiting in line outside the O’Fallon License Office. Morrison said the office had tried to operate using appointments, but people were leaving and then not showing up in time.
McBenge said she had tried to get a new license using the appointment system, but only received a two-minute warning. When she received the notification, she was more than two minutes away from the office.
“The issue with it was it didn’t give you like a 30-minute warning or anything,” McBenge said. “At least if people did have somewhere they had to be they could at least try to be here on time. ... It was just a big ol’ mess.”
By about 12:30 p.m., McBenge was finally at the front of the line.
Morrison, the door attendant, said seniors and people with disabilities were able to wait in a separate line.
But procedures vary by location.
At the Creve Coeur License Office, about a 20-minute drive away, the office, managed by ACM LLC, was operating by appointment only.
At noon, about five people waited in line outside the office. They had made appointments, but staff was running about 15 minutes behind, the door attendant said.
Desiree Williams, 32, said she had tried to renew her license at four other locations Wednesday morning — Florissant, Maplewood, Clayton and Olivette — but she said she faced extreme delays at each location.
She said she waited two hours at the Florissant office, but left when she was told she would have to wait another two hours.
“I just don’t understand why the process takes long to the point where we have to wait for four hours just to get a license,” Williams said.
“It’s just — it’s just absurd — it’s just terrible,” said Grant Fitzpatrick, 18, who was in the back of the line, near the loading dock of the shopping center where the O’Fallon office was located. “I did not know it was going to be like this.”
Not everyone was frustrated. One person interviewed said the workers at the O’Fallon office were friendly. A woman said workers accommodated her disability by providing her a chair.
Anne Marie Moy, spokeswoman for the Department of Revenue, said the state has issued guidance amid the pandemic.
The recommendations include encouraging “eligible” individuals to renew online, providing information to operators about measures to ensure a “safe” environment, and recommending that offices adopt appointment systems.
“We have encouraged offices to consider adopting an appointment system or virtual lobby that would allow customers to receive a text or call when they are next, but unless an appointment-based system was part of their bid in the contract, we cannot compel a contracted license office to adopt it,” she said in an email. “For some smaller offices, however, these options may be cost prohibitive.”
Zellers said during a news conference Tuesday he’d “like to believe” Missouri’s use of privately operated license offices makes things more efficient, even with a patchwork of operating procedures. He said other states share information with Missouri.
“Based on the data that they’ve shared with us, we are in a much better situation than in surrounding states,” he said.
Zellers said the department had made changes that allowed offices to process “many more vehicle renewal transactions by phone,” said the department waived certain commercial drivers license requirements, and said the department was continuing “to offer mail-in drivers license renewal services to CDL holders.”
Normal drivers licenses still can’t be renewed online, Moy said.
Zellers said starting July 31 the state would “automatically renew and mail permanent disabled placards for over 200,000 eligible Missourians,” which he said would cut down on in-person traffic.
He said the department had plans to open “a few” temporary license offices around the state.
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