Ottawa

Long lines, waning patience as Service Ontario slashes hours

Seventy-five minutes before the Service Ontario office at 1800 Bank St. was due to open its doors Thursday morning, there were 75 people waiting in line to get in. Many said it was the second day in a row they'd shown up after being turned away the day before.

Premier urges offices to reopen as people forced to wait hours

Dozens of people waited in line early Thursday morning for the Service Ontario office at 1800 Bank St. to open its doors at 10 a.m. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Seventy-five minutes before the Service Ontario office at 1800 Bank St. was due to open its doors Thursday morning, there were 75 people waiting in line to get in. 

They'd brought lawn chairs, books and snacks and were settled in for the long wait. The people at the front of the line said they'd arrived at 6:30 a.m., three and a half hours before opening time. Many said it was the second day in a row they'd shown up after being turned away the day before.

"I think this is crazy, and it has to come to a stop," said April Lacroix, an Ottawa mother of eight who was waiting to renew her driver's licence.

Many Service Ontario locations have either closed or drastically reduced their hours during the pandemic. A sign on the door at 1800 Bank St. says it's now open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday — just eight hours a week.

Things are so bad, the provincial ministry responsible is urging people to stay away unless absolutely necessary.

April Lacroix, left, arrived at 6:30 a.m. on Thursday morning to renew her driver's licence. She said it was her second day in a row waiting in line outside the Service Ontario location. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Online alternatives

To help ease the lineups, the province has extended expiry dates on a number of items including driver's licences, health cards and vehicle plate stickers. Many services can now be accessed online, including licence and health card renewals, as well as birth, death and marriage certificates.

But many of the people who spoke to CBC on Thursday said they were unaware of those measures. Others reported having issues when they tried to renew a licence online, among them Lacroix, who said the website only gave her error messages.

Matthew Marchand said he'd like to see more Service Ontario locations reopen in Ottawa. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

"It ain't working, period," said Lacroix, who's worried about getting a fine for driving with an expired licence. "When it's taking so long to be seen, that's ridiculous."

By 9:30 a.m. — half an hour before opening time — the lineup outside 1800 Bank St. had grown to 100 and snaked through the parking lot, making it difficult for people to observe physical distancing, and far exceeding the province's own ban on groups larger than five.

"I understand there's challenges with opening up, with workers' safety, but this is also public safety, and so I think there should be some consideration there," said Matthew Marchand, also in line for the second consecutive morning after being turned away Wednesday.

Marchand was there to get updated stickers for his licence plates, and said he didn't think the online option was available to him. When he arrived at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, there were already dozens of people in line ahead of him.

"I just think a system where they did appointments or something would kind of mitigate this, because if we have a second wave [of COVID-19] and it's in winter, I can't imagine this being feasible at all," he said.

Most of the people waiting seemed to make an effort to physically distance, but it became difficult as the line grew. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Ford calls for offices to reopen

The Ministry of Government and Consumer Services declined an interview, but said in a statement it takes the health of both its employees and customers "very seriously."

"To help ensure the safety of employees and customers, we have urged our customers not to visit a ServiceOntario unless absolutely necessary, and have introduced measures to limit the need to visit a centre," the ministry said.

"For transactions where an in-person visit is necessary, we have introduced measures to ensure the safety of staff and clients."

Those measures include enhanced cleaning routines, pre-screening of clients, enforcing physical distancing, adjusting staff schedules and bringing in security guards, the ministry said, adding it's "actively involved" in planning to open more centres.

Asked about the long lineups during a news conference Thursday, Premier Doug Ford said he'd like to see more Service Ontario locations reopened.

"Let's open these up. Practise social distancing. [Ontarians] have to get their sticker, they have to get their pictures for their licence. Let's start opening them up," Ford said.

Ottawa Centre NDP MPP Joel Harden said he's been hearing from constituents who are concerned about the long lines.

"The government has indicated that there is no rush for people to get in those lines and extend their driver's licences or health cards at Service Ontario locations. So if people are queuing up for that, with a fear of those cards expiring, those fears can be allayed," Harden said.

John Fraser, the Liberal MPP for Ottawa South, also told people not to be concerned. He said he hopes the kiosks will have officials on hand, even before opening hours, to ensure physical distancing is respected in line. 

"I'd argue if there are going to be lineups, you have to take responsibility. So someone has to be there at, you know, seven o'clock in the morning. It's a matter of public safety," Fraser said.

About the Author

Hillary Johnstone is a reporter for CBC Ottawa. You can reach her by email hillary.johnstone@cbc.ca.

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