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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / People wait in line behind a full parking lot at the Hamilton County Tag and Title office on Monday, May 18, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

After he was unable to get into the Hamilton County Clerk's office last week due to long lines of people waiting to get their tags or titles, Jimmy Wilson Sr., arrived at the title office off of Bonny Oaks Drive at 6:30 a.m. Monday morning.

"There were already 75 people or so waiting to get in," Wilson said. "I've never seen anything like it, but after three other visits here last week, I knew I better stay."

The Harrison car buyer trying to register his new vehicle is among hundreds of Hamilton County residents who have had to wait in line, sometimes for up to five hours, to get used vehicles, boats and RVs registered at the sole county clerk's office open in Hamilton County for the past couple of weeks.

Due to the coronavirus, the clerk's office in the downtown courthouse remains closed and workers at the Bonny Oaks facility, which was also closed for three weeks, have had to limit some of the windows used to service those coming to the office to help limit the possible spread of COVID-19. The clerk's office is trying to catch up for the period it was closed and is also seeing an extra influx of some tag and title renewals because the vehicle emissions tests normally required for such renewals has been temporarily suspended since the state emissions facilities remain closed until next Tuesday.

Tennessee's Driver Services Centers, which opened Monday for rescheduled skills tests and some other services, also had long lines through the day Monday when they reopened for the first time since the coronavirus shutdown. The state facilities are requiring visitors to wear face coverings and be checked for temperatures. The state won't resume road skills test until June 15, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles, who has been clerk for 46 years, said he has never seen anything comparable to the pandemic and its impact on vehicle tags and registrations.

"We've had to move all of our tag and title operations to Bonny Oaks because of the social distancing requirements," Knowles said. "We don't have room in the courthouse halls to keep people a part and meet all of the recommended guidelines."

Knowles said the courthouse office is taking appointments for some services and his downtown staff is handling car dealers and fleet sales. Dealers usually send packs of tags and title requests by runners who drop off such cases o the clerk's office and then return later once the claims have been processed.

The number of used car registrations, which are usually handled in individual claims, dropped in April to the lowest monthly level in the past two decades that such records are on file due to the closing of the county and state offices during the COVID-19 pandemic last month. In April, only 1,815 used vehicles were registered in Hamilton County, or only 43% as many as the same time a year ago.

Knowles said his office has been handling from 1,500 to 2,000 transactions a day at the Bonny Oaks facility. But even then, the parking lot at the Bonny Oaks facility usually fills up by midday and persons are turned away later because the office can't handle all of the people coming to the office.

On Monday, people began showing up at 5:15 a.m., or nearly three hours before the 8 a.m. opening for the clerk's office. To help those waiting, an app alerts those in line what their status is and how much longer it its likely they will have to wait.

"We're doing everything we can to be as efficient and possible and serve everyone as best we can under these circumstances," Knowles said.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340

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Motorists wait hours for tags and titles

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