By Grace Mamon
Lexington’s DMV branch, one of two in the state still closed from the pandemic, will stay shuttered until 2021, when it will reopen at a new, larger location.
Jessica Cowardin, Virginia DMV spokesperson, said in an email that most branches are open for appointment only to limit the number of people in the building.
“The current facilities do not have adequate space for customers and employees to social distance during the pandemic,” a Sept. 24 news release said. “Until the offices are relocated, DMV’s mobile service teams are scheduling visits in these areas to provide appointment services.”
Cowardin could not be reached by phone and did not respond to questions about whether the continued closure resulted in employee layoffs.
The Lexington branch phone number is also hard to reach, recommending that callers try again later. There is no option to leave a voicemail.
But the DMV is helping customers by extending license renewal deadlines and Real ID deadlines. Some customers can renew their licenses online, though not everyone is eligible. Eligibility information and instructions are available on their website.
Eddie Brown, driver’s education and behind-the-wheel instructor at Rockbridge High School, said the DMV closure is making it difficult for students to get their licenses.
“I’ve heard students talking about how the DMV was shut down and they were having to make appointments either in Staunton or Covington to go take the learner’s test,” he said.
To get a license, students under the age of 18 must complete 36 hours of face-to-face driver’s education and pass a behind-the-wheel course with an instructor.
Brown said he got permission to facilitate in-person driving practice right before school started. The driver’s education portion is being held “face-to-face” over Google Meets. “It’s been trying,” he said.
The number of students who are taking behind-the-wheel training through the school has diminished considerably, Brown said. Most students completed the course privately over the summer.
Private driving schools typically cost around $250, Brown said. The school charges only $50, and if students receive free and reduced lunch, the cost is zero.
The shutdown also cost Brown.
“Over the summer I usually use [behind the wheel] as another source of income,” he said. “But I couldn’t do that this year.”
Though it’s back up and running, behind the wheel, like most everything, looks different from how it used to.
The state waived the seven-hour observation requirement for student drivers, meaning that students no longer complete the course in pairs. One instructor and one student are allowed in the car at a time. Other pandemic protocols are also in place.
“I wipe everything down before we go,” Brown said. “The student wears a mask and gets their temperature taken.”
At the end of the course, Brown can issue passing student drivers a temporary license. They will exchange it for a permanent license through the courthouse.
But for new drivers 18-years-old and above, it’s a different story.
Bryant Mason, owner and operator of Sixty West Driving School in Lexington, said older new drivers are having the hardest time.
At the end of the course, drivers 18 and older get a certificate, not their license.
“Normally they would take that certificate to the DMV, they could do it that very day, then the DMV would issue them their license,” Mason said. “Now, they can’t even make an appointment.”
Mason said his driving school was shut down for several months starting in March, causing a backlog of appointments when he reopened over the summer.
He said that drivers who want to renew their licenses are having a hard time, despite the extension and online option.
“If you get an appointment, even if they’re doing them, you could be on the list for months,” he said.
Some of his customers have been going to Harrisonburg or Amherst instead of waiting around in Lexington, he said.
“In a time when jobs are really hard, and when you need a license to get a job, it puts you between a rock and a hard place,” Mason said.
Other private driving school instructors echoed Mason’s statements. STRIDES Driving School in Lexington and Rockbridge Driving School employees said the DMV closure has complicated things, although they haven’t been backlogged like Mason.
Cowardin said that the new Lexington DMV location will be in the Stonewall Square Shopping Center off of Route 60.
There is no specific date for next year’s reopening.
Troubles from the DMV closure were not surprising to Mason.
“The DMV has some really weird, strange ways of doing things anyway…They complicate things.”