One of the more frustrating aspects for many of those who have come into the Wright County Government Center in recent months been consistently long waiting lines at the county’s license bureau. The combination of the length of time it took to process the documentation required for REAL ID and the amount of people that were coming in to do transactions, it was a problem before most people had heard the terms “coronavirus” and “COVID-19.”
Once social distancing protocol was included into the mix, a bad situation became worse because of the sheer numbers of people that were packed together in a small space posed a potential health threat. At times, the lines were so long, one department head in an adjoining office said, “If there’s going to be community transmission of the coronavirus in Wright County, it could be in that line.”
License Bureau Supervisor Becky Aanerud said that, despite having their public facing counter closed for almost two weeks and the State of Minnesota closing their offices to all business effective tomorrow (March 28), the flow of business remains as hectic as ever.
“Even though we are going to be closed down, it hasn’t stopped the workload from coming in,” Aanerud said. “I’d bet that I’ve had 50 calls today. We have three people working here in the office right now and 10 phones lines. We’ve been doubling up on calls being sent to our phones and they just keep coming.”
In a typical day, the Wright County License Bureau has dealt with approximately 300-400 customers with six employees working the front counter. Many of the transactions involve REAL ID requests, which take an inordinate amount of time to document and complete.
Aanerud was as frustrated as the people on line who had to wait to get service. Her concerns over the inability to create effective social distancing grew by the day. As much as she tried to tell people to move farther apart from each other, every time she would go back in the hallway, the situation would repeat itself.
“We were going crazy about that,” Aanerud said. “When the social distancing protocol was first discussed, we knew that there was no way with the number of people we had in our line to have social distance. The people kept getting closer and closer and every time I went out in the hall I kept telling people to spread apart.”
Despite the long lines at the Wright County License Bureau, wait times were much worse elsewhere. Word got out that a trip to Buffalo could save two or three hours of wait time – some cities in the metro area have had wait times as long as four hours. Not only was the license bureau trying to keep up with Wright County demand, they were getting inundated with foot traffic from Sherburne, Stearns and Hennepin counties, which added to the burden.
So now what happens when the license bureau re-opens, whether on a full-time or part-time (mail and drop-off only) basis? Aanerud said that is something she and her staff will be investigating over the next two weeks. They caught a break with the requirement of REAL ID to board domestic flights being pushed back from Oct. 1, 2020 to Oct. 1, 2021, but there are other considerations that are going to be explored.
Some proposals that have been offered up include starting an appointment schedule where those needing different services can arrive at a specified time, separating out REAL ID customers from those who are at the license bureau to get something done (like license tabs) that can completed in just a couple of minutes, perhaps requiring that customers live in Wright County to be serviced at the license bureau and the potential of taking those whose licenses or tabs expired during the shutdown first.
They’re all options on the table and Aanerud said her office will do its best to determine which are the most practical while potentially still facing the need for social distancing after the current closure ends.
“We’re going to be making plans on how we re-open,” Aanerud said. “If we still have to do social distancing, we’re going to have to put some marks on the floor to keep people safe. We have to find a room where we keep people waiting if we have long lines like we were having the last few months to spread them out somehow. We’re going to have to have somebody down there to monitor them and we’re going to have to have less people at the counters because we’re on top of each other and when we’re all doing our jobs, we can’t get the proper amount of social distance. If we’re trying to keep our customers six feet apart, our employees need to be six feet apart. It’s going to be a challenge to make this work and we’ll have to do our research. But, we’ll do what we need to do to serve our customers while trying our best to keep everyone safe.”