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Coronavirus makes lines at DMV anathema with Real ID deadline fast approaching

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Driver licensing offices around the country are closing temporarily to help limit spread of coronavirus.

Thanks to coronavirus, one dreaded chore is temporarily off limits. No need to brace for long lines at the DMV to renew a driver license because those offices are closed for now in Washington state and perhaps soon in Oregon.

The infamous long lines at the DMV produced wait times exceeding one hour at several Oregon Driver and Motor Vehicle Services field offices Tuesday, despite federal Centers for Disease Control guidance to minimize gatherings of groups of more than 10 people to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.

Up and down the West Coast, government officials urged customers to try to complete their transactions online. However, some things can only be done in-person such as applying for an enhanced driver's license in Washington, or renewing any driver's license in Oregon.

For customers who can’t avoid going in, the Oregon DMV said Tuesday it was directing its medium and large-sized offices to increase social distancing, for example, by removing some chairs from lobbies to increase spacing. Another tactic may be to station a greeter at the door who limits how many customers come inside at one time. Oregon DMV spokesman David House said the agency has also canceled all driving tests for the remainder of March.

Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio foresees trouble because large numbers of travelers need to visit a DMV office over the coming months to apply for upgraded ID cards that will be necessary to board domestic flights beginning October 1, 2020. A standard Oregon or Washington state driver license does not meet the security standards established under the federal Real ID Act.

This week, DeFazio and several other high-ranking House Democrats wrote the Department of Homeland Security to request the October Real ID deadline be postponed nationwide.

"For implementation to go smoothly, DHS would need tens of millions of Americans to get new identifications over the next several months," the Democratic committee chairmen wrote. "Creating lines at Departments of Motor Vehicles would be foolish during a pandemic."

Illinois, Mississippi and Pennsylvania are among other states that have closed some or all driver licensing offices through the end of March because of the coronavirus outbreak. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said in recent days that they have filed their own requests to the federal government for an extension of the looming Real ID deadline.

But Homeland Security is giving no signs it will agree to another delay. A DHS spokesperson indicated Monday that previous guidance stands. In a letter sent to members of Congress two weeks ago, including to Rep. DeFazio and Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, acting Undersecretary James McCament urged the public to get a Real ID immediately and not wait until the deadline.

"I assure you that DHS is serious about implementing REAL ID, which stems from a critical 9/11 Commission recommendation that Congress subsequently enacted into law," McCament wrote. "We are taking all available steps to mitigate the potential impact it could have on the traveling public and are working closely with our government and industry partners in these efforts."

Congress passed the Real ID Act in 2005 to increase license security standards in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. Many people already have the identification that will be needed to pass through airport security after next fall. A U.S. or foreign passport, military ID, permanent resident card, tribal photo ID, or an enhanced driver license are among the alternatives that meet the approval of the federal Department of Homeland Security and TSA.

Washington state's Department of Licensing said it hopes to reopen its more than 50 field offices as soon as next Monday after working out new social distancing procedures, but it cautioned in an agency blog post that "residents should be prepared for the possibility of extended closures." Washington state driver licensing offices closed on short notice Tuesday to cut the risk of coronavirus spread.

An emergency proclamation signed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday temporarily waived some existing rules and requirements so that more drivers can renew their driver's licenses or standard ID cards without setting foot in a busy office. Inslee's order suspended a requirement that residents visit an office to renew at least every other time. Also waived for now is a rule that prohibited customers over 70 from renewing online.

Plus, Washington driver license applicants will no longer have to take a vision test by sticking their faces in a machine at the counter and describing what they see.

"We currently do not have adequate supplies to clean the machines," the Washington DOL explained. "Additionally, vision exams have a 99.6 percent pass rate. We believe this move is prudent given the circumstances."

Asked whether the state might give an extension to drivers whose licenses will soon expire and who can't for whatever reason renew online, agency spokeswoman Christine Anthony said the departmental leadership was "looking into many different things at this time."

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.