The U.S. Department of State announced last week it is preparing to gradually resume providing passport services in phases this week, continuing services which have been effectively suspended since March.
In order to help people understand what changes they can expect when the services resumes, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, Carl Risch, held a conference call on Friday detailing the phased resumption of passport services throughout the country.
“The COVID-19 pandemic posed an unprecedented challenge to our operations,” said Risch.
“To keep our employees and customers safe, and to reduce the spread of COVID-19 we significantly reduced our passport operations in March, leaving only enough staff at our passport agencies to process cases involving life and death emergencies.”
Passport services couldn’t resume normally during the lockdown period because important documentation could not be securely obtained and verified over the phone. “This means only reviewing them in government facilities,” said Risch. “It must be written and manufactured in secure government facilities to protect national security.”
The State Department has been monitoring the situation, both nationally and on a state and local level to see if conditions were right to resume service.
“Now, as many states are safely reopening, it’s only prudent for us to follow suit. More and more of our employees are returning to our passport facilities to immediately work on finalizing sent applications,” said Risch.
“In line with the State Department’s broader framework, the bureau of Consular Affairs has put into action our plan to return to normal passport operations. This is a phased plan to gradually bring back more staff to our agencies, to tackle the applications we’ve received since March.”
Since last week, 11 passport agencies have entered Phase One of the reopening process, with facilities gradually ramping up operations, based on local conditions and state and CDC guidelines.
Phase Two of the process will have most of the staff returning to work and applications will then be processed on a “first in, first out” basis starting with the oldest applications.
And Phase Three will have all the rest of Passport Service staff will return to work to continue processing applications on a first in, first out basis, though it will start offering expedited processing during this phase.
“The health and safety of our workforce and customers will always remain our top priority,” said Risch. “As a result we will be able to balance our commitment to facilitating American’s travel abroad, with our duty to safeguard our employees and customers.”
In the facilities, they are facilitating social distancing and supplying customer-facing employees with Personal Protective Equipment to help keep people safe and healthy while they prepare to travel.
The department is also preparing for a potential resurgence of the pandemic, as destinations begin reporting increased infection rates again. “We’re all going to have to be vigilant of this situation in the future, but we believe we are in a much better position now going forward to weather such storms, should it come back,” said Risch.
Normally, over 18 million passports are processed each year by the Dept., and once services do come back online the backlog of applications will force some significant delays for applicants. “We are committed to working as hard as we can to process applications as quickly as possible, as soon as it is safe for us to do so,” the State Department said in a statement.