With several staffers at Anoka County License Centers exposed to COVID-19 and more taking leaves to help their kids with distance learning, one of five locations is closing until at least Dec. 11.
The Ramsey office closed its doors due to the staffing shortage, but some of its 10 employees are pivoting to other locations to maintain services. Of 54 people employed at the county’s five license centers — in Blaine, Columbia Heights, Coon Rapids, Ham Lake and Ramsey — 17 are taking time off for reasons related to COVID-19.
John Lenarz, manager of the county’s license and passport centers, said he was the first employee exposed to the coronavirus in July. Since then, another six staffers have either tested positive or had a family member exposed to the virus.
Two employees at the Ramsey center were recently exposed, while two others at Ham Lake were exposed, plus another three at the larger centers in Coon Rapids and Blaine.
Even before infections escalated across the state, Lenarz said the demands of distance learning were causing a staffing shortage systemwide. About 13 staffers were out two to three days per week to help their children with school, and Lenarz said he expects that number to increase when the Anoka-Hennepin School District switches to full-time distance learning Monday.
The license centers now are in the process of filling five openings, including two positions opened by recent retirements. “It’s kind of the perfect storm,” Lenarz said of the Ramsey office’s closing.
County officials will re-evaluate the Ramsey closure in early December to see if staffing levels will support reopening.
Minnesota Department of Health spokesman Doug Schultz said a small cluster of cases in a workplace “would not be unexpected,” but he added the department only follows up when there are three or more cases per location.
“With so much community spread occurring, these cases in employees at a workplace are much more likely to be spillover from the community than transmission occurring in the workplace,” he wrote in an e-mail.
That means, Lenarz said, that Ramsey staffers not in quarantine can work at one of the other license centers.
During the pandemic, operations have shifted to appointments only, with three customers typically every 15 minutes. Those who had scheduled appointments at the Ramsey center through Dec. 11 were being asked to reschedule in Blaine or Coon Rapids.
The county has installed plexiglass barriers at license counters to minimize transmission, but because the five centers are in leased buildings, the county excluded them from recent HVAC upgrades.
Anoka County typically has 400,000 license center transactions annually, Lenarz said. Though that has taken a dip, he said drop-off options for things like tab renewals have helped keep business steady.
After Gov. Tim Walz’s first stay-at-home order expired in May, Lenarz said license centers reopened on a limited basis, with Ham Lake opening last. County officials didn’t want to hit the same area again so they decided this time to close the Ramsey office, which is smaller than the Blaine and Coon Rapids locations.
Walz’s emergency executive orders have lifted the deadline on renewing expired driver’s licenses, which Lenarz said alleviates pressure on staffers and customers. If the COVID-19 emergency is extended past mid-December, the license renewal extension will move to February.