Metro Louisville

Kentuckians looking to renew their driver’s license or vehicle registration have encountered long lines in Jefferson County during the pandemic.

License branches suspended in-person services in March for several weeks during the onset of the pandemic. When Jefferson County branches reopened, it was only half of its physical locations, with just 50% of its usual employees. The County Clerk’s office, a separate office that handles vehicle registrations and taxes, has eight facilities and is limiting its lobby capacity to 30%.

At the Bowman Field license branch, Louisvillians encounter stanchions that form a queue area, not unlike those seen at an airport, and hours-long lines.

John Boyle | wfpl.org

Jefferson County license branch at Bowman Field.

“I’d been out once before,” said Dartanya Hill, who went to Bowman Field to renew his license Wednesday. “The lines were just too long to stand in.”

Hill’s license had been expired since June. He said he’s been trying to find time to renew it for about a month now.

Hill was able to walk in and get his license renewed in a little over an hour Wednesday, but some who arrived earlier in the day were asked to come back later.

Many who arrived in the afternoon, hours before closing, were turned away: no more appointments available, and no process for making appointments except showing up.

“That was the only discomfort thing, knowing that you have to come back — when they could answer the phone and tell you that you need to make an appointment before you come over,” said Gary Ford, who needed a license renewal. “Other than that, everything went pretty smooth.”

Before coronavirus, Bowman Field was already handling about 10,000 transactions a month, according to the Jefferson County Circuit Clerk’s Office. Though numbers may not be as high as usual, business is still active, with the site handing about 35 appointments per hour.

The limitations have made it difficult for some Louisville residents to find to renew their licenses. Gov. Andy Beshear extended a 90-day grace period to those whose licenses expired between March 19 and July 6. The deadline for this extension was Oct. 7, and fees for late registration started accruing as of that day.

Brittany Johnson said she has spent hours at different county buildings trying to get her paperwork in order in recent weeks. Johnson said despite the grace period, she has felt uncomfortable while driving since her license expired in April.

“My skin color’s Black,” Johnson said. “You don’t want to be pulled over. Not only if your license is expired, but your tags, too.”

Johnson said she thinks police have been understanding about the ways the pandemic has prevented routine tasks like license renewal. A statement from LMPD spokesperson Dwight Mitchell said officers take the potential delays into account when dealing with the public.

“Certainly, officers are aware of difficulties that citizens have had during the pandemic,” he said. “LMPD officers at any given time have discretion when issuing traffic citations.” 

The circuit court clerk’s office has implemented the appointment process recently to alleviate some of the pressure on the offices and shorten lines. But Will Jones said it felt like a well-oiled machine last week, but requiring people to come in person to set an appointment was difficult for people like him with strict work schedules.

“Going to work late, getting off early if possible, that’s the main thing,” Jones said. “That just makes it really tough if you have a job.”

Gov. Andy Beshear recently announced an extension of remote driver’s license renewal through next February to encourage more people to avoid coming in-person. The Jefferson County Circuit Court Clerk’s office is encouraging residents to utilize that process when possible, as are Jefferson County Clerk’s branches for tag renewals.

Nore J. Ghibaudy, director of public relations at the Jefferson County Clerk’s Office, says those who can handle their business by phone or mail should do so.

“Before I actually worked for the clerk’s office, I did mine by mail,” he said. “To me, that was an easy way to do it. You pop it in the mail if you’re just renewing it, and a copy of your insurance and send it in with a check and $2 fee or whatever it may be. To me, that was always an easier way to do it because I didn’t have to leave my home.”

But those options aren’t available for everyone, particularly anyone with a name change, new address or a title transfer.

“Since the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet has extended the Mail-In Renewal Option through Feb. 28, 2021, due to COVID-19, we are continuing to highly recommend those seeking a driver’s license renewal who meet the applicable criteria to take advantage of this option to alleviate the need for a trip to one of our three open branches,” said Kevin Smalley, chief of staff of the Jefferson County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office. 

To be eligible, drivers must not require testing or have an address or name change, he said.

The three license branches in Jefferson County are reserving the first hour of the day for elderly citizens, and the general public is served after 9 a.m. The county clerk branches don’t have any special accommodations for the elderly and encourage them to renew by phone or mail whenever possible.

John Boyle covers southern Indiana communities and health for WFPL News. He is a Report for America Corps member.