Pack lots of patience if you have to take a test for a permit or driver’s license in Minnesota in the time of COVID-19. The pandemic caused a backlog that is still being worked through statewide, and the Detroit Lakes exam station is no exception.

Road trip from Mahnomen

On Tuesday, Vickie Heisler of Mahnomen was one of a number of people waiting in a car in the parking lot for a text saying it was her turn to go inside.

“I live right across the street from the courthouse in Mahnomen, and I have to drive to Detroit Lakes for this,” she said. She needed to transfer her North Dakota driver’s license to a Minnesota driver’s license, which required her to fill out an application, show identification, and show her North Dakota license.

She’d been waiting for about 90 minutes, and had already been screened for COVID-19 by a “very polite lady,” inside the exam station at the State Patrol-MnDOT headquarters on Highway 10 in Detroit Lakes.

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“They’ll text me when they’re ready for me to come in,” she said. “You need to just dedicate a day to doing nothing else than what you need to be doing here -- dedicate a day to it and then you just sit and wait,” she said.

That zen-like attitude was also needed when she called St. Paul to find out why her license plate tabs haven’t arrived yet. “I sent it in in April, my tabs expired in May, and they still haven’t come,” Heisler said.

When she called to inquire about the status of her tabs, “they put you on hold forever,” she said. “Kind of like Minnesota unemployment, I was on the phone for three hours holding.”

On Tuesday, it was her second road trip to the exam station in Detroit Lakes in as many weeks. She showed up at 7:45 a.m. last week and “the line was way out to the end of the sidewalk,” she said. “This ain’t working out,” she said to herself, and left.

She was probably wise.

Turned away after three hours in line

Becker County Commissioner Barry Nelson said his wife and 15-year-old daughter spent three hours in line there one morning a few weeks ago, only to be turned away when they were second in line to get in. Had they made it, they still would have had a long wait.

Turns out that first line, that was disbanded at 11:30 a.m., was just to get a spot to be seen sometime that day, he said.

Nelson brought his daughter back at 6 a.m. the next day. They were fifth in line, and by 11 a.m. she had passed her test and received her learner’s permit.

“They are backlogged so bad it’s insane,” he said. “You’re never going to catch up when you have only 20% of the sites open ... you have to open more sites up or have the first written test online and do the honor system -- we need bus drivers and (commercial driver's license) people on the road.”

Hop on the bus, Gus

One of those people waiting for a bus driver’s license was Tim Boyer of Thief River Falls, who was in a car in the parking lot with his son, Jason, who was also waiting to take a written test for a regular driver’s license.

Tim Boyer is ready to start a new job as a bus driver for Tri-Valley Heartland Express in Thief River Falls.

The two arrived at the exam station about 10 a.m. and Tim Boyer got in right away and received his permit to learn. In two weeks, he can take the bus road test. He was in a few days earlier and after a 2½-hour wait, got a passenger endorsement for a commercial driver’s license, he said.

After eight years as an auto parts runner, he is hoping the commercial driver’s license leads to better opportunities.

Jason Boyer was still waiting 90 minutes after they arrived, but he was also screened and was told he’d be able to get in and take the test that day.

As of Monday, appointments are now being taken online for regular driver’s license permits and tests, but people like Jason Boyer who just showed up were still being allowed in, since it was a new change in operations, he said.

Detroit Lakes is one of 15 open exam stations

Why the state has only opened 15 exam stations

The Minnesota Department of Vehicle Services is focusing on the open 15 regional exam stations to serve Minnesotans statewide, which includes the Detroit Lakes exam station, media spokeswoman Megan Leonard said in an email.

The remaining exam stations will remain closed in order to be more efficient and expand the number of tests offered on a daily basis, she said. The exam stations that aren’t reopening only offered road tests several times per week, requiring examiners to travel to exam stations within the region in order to conduct tests.

Focusing on the 15 regional exam stations allows examiners to remain at one exam station and use the time they would have spent traveling conducting more tests, Leonard said.

Becker County DMV is open

Most deputy registrar and driver’s license agent offices are open, she said, including the Becker County DMV at the courthouse, which is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

“For simple tab renewal, we’re doing those in the lobby,” said Becker County Auditor-Treasurer Mary Hendrickson, who is in charge of the office. “We’re sending people down (to the DMV office in the courthouse) three at a time for more complicated things.”

To get there, use the main entrance near the courts area, not the usual entrance by the sheriff’s office. Security workers will screen for COVID-19. “Wear a mask,” Hendrickson suggested.

Enhanced driver’s licenses are done by appointment from 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday. Sign up for an appointment on the county website, she said.

The county DMV office is staffed by two full-time, three part-time and one temporary employee, and the busiest time of the day is from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., when people come in during their lunch hour, Hendrickson said.

“We just hope they’re patient,” she said.