Visiting the DMV: American Efficiency in the Age of COVID-19

Car on the road

My driver's license was about to expire. Mississippi's online renewal system requires an in-person renewal between each online renewal. Since I used online renewal last time, I had no choice but to brave the DMV in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Should I wait until I could receive the vaccine? I had no idea how long that would take.

I attempted to navigate a poorly constructed website to determine where I needed to go. The main branch in town was "closed due to COVID-19" on some pages but not on others. I found a small branch closer to me that looked like it might be open. Of course, there were no phone numbers listed.

I finally found a page that encouraged me to schedule an appointment online. "Skip the line" was what it advertised. That sounded promising! I scheduled an appointment. As I wrote down the address, I noticed that it was incomplete. I recognized the street as being the street on which our town's main shopping mall is located. Without a complete address, I'd have little choice but to drive up and down that street.

I gave myself an extra 20 minutes, and this was exactly what I needed. The street address took me to the mall. The suite number was useless. No suite numbers were visible on any of the buildings. I was beginning to think this place didn't want anybody to find it.

It was only by driving through every little strip mall near the main shopping mall that I finally found it. My joy in finally having found it faded as soon as I saw the crowd of people standing outside the door. "At least I could skip the line," I thought. That was all that prevented me from making a run for it.

I masked up and got as close to the front as I felt comfortable while trying to maintain social distance. Few others were making any effort to do so. I noticed that they were letting 3-5 people in at a time.

The appointment scheduling system I'd used sounded great on the website. It soon became obvious that it was for pre-COVID days. They were letting people in based on their position in line. This defeated the point of having an appointment. I was going to have to be assertive if I wanted to get in.

I called out to the woman who was opening the door to let select people in, asking what those of us with appointments should do. She seemed puzzled but asked the crowd who had appointments. There were 5-6 of us, and she got us in next. By the time I gained access to the building, it was only about 15 minutes past the appointment time I had scheduled.

Groups of 3-5 people entered at a time. We found ourselves clustered together in a small space. So much for social distancing. We were practically standing on top of each other. Masks were required, but I saw many that were not covering people's noses. Others looked like they were about to fall off. At least two of the people in the small room were coughing. This didn't seem safe.

One by one, they screened us with a temperature check. You know, because it is impossible to spread COVID-19 without running a fever! A woman asked each of us why we were there and looked through our paperwork to make sure it was in order. We were then required to apply hand sanitizer. This was fine except there was no place to set down whatever papers or other items we were carrying.

Eventually, we were rewarded with a slip of paper reflecting our order in line. This allowed us to stand in line for the next 30 minutes. What happened to skipping the line?

Efforts to maintain social distancing in the lines had two problems. First, the room wasn't big enough to allow the number of people admitted to spread out. Second, some of the people in line would not stand still. The woman in front of me kept backing into me, ignoring the marks on the floor.

The DMV employee running the line I was in was training a new employee. This has been the case at every DMV I've ever been in every time I've ever been in at least 5 different states. If they weren't going slow because they were training a new hire, it wouldn't be the DMV.

The problem turned out to be the people at the front of the line. I had plenty of time to observe. An older Vietnamese man with a limited grasp of English was trying to get identification papers. He had a younger man with him to interpret. They had a ton of paperwork, and the DMV employee kept saying helpful things. There was one exchange I particularly enjoyed:

Do you have your birth certificate?
[Hands over his birth certificate]
What country is this from?
[Looks confused and says nothing]
What country is this from? (loudly, because that will help)
[Interpreter says something in Vietnamese] Vietnam.
This isn't even in English. Some of your paperwork isn't in English!

This hurt my brain. Why the hell would Vietnam issue their birth certificates in English? This went on for at least 20 minutes. The interpreter's grasp of Vietnamese was a bit limited. The DMV employee announced that one of the man's forms hadn't been notarized. I thought they might send him away at this point, but they gave him his identification anyway.

Once I got to the front of the line, everything improved. The renewal process was smooth and didn't take too long. As I exited the DMV, I realized I wasn't sure when to expect the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. I found myself hoping my license renewal wouldn't prove fatal. I'd like to live long enough to die in some good ole' American gun violence, thank you very much!

Image by Mikes-Photography from Pixabay