“People want to get out after they’ve been trapped in. A lot of people don’t have travel plans; they just want to get out,” says Julia Sorensen, an operations coordinator and licensing specialist in Jefferson County’s passport office.
We checked with ten U.S. Post Office locations — which process passport applications — around Denver, and all appointments were filled for the next four weeks.
“The moment we opened up appointments, they were gone," Sorensen says. "People keep asking, ‘Where else can I go?’ You don’t have to do it in your county — it’s a federal document, so you can get it done anywhere you can find an appointment.” And you might have luck in smaller towns, like Idledale, or more obscure post offices in Colorado Springs.
Last year the U.S. Department of State issued 213,548 passports to Coloradans, down 38 percent compared to the 342,331 issued in 2019. The nation as a whole issued 9 million fewer passports in 2020 than in 2019, about a 44 percent drop.
The federal agency only tracks annual passport statistics, so it's difficult to determine whether the current passport crunch comes from increased demand now, catching up with downtime from last year, or new policies stemming from the pandemic. Pre-COVID, you could just walk into a post office and apply for a passport; today, an appointment is required.
While many U.S. Post Office and municipal centers provide passport services, issuing the travel documents is done by the U.S. Department of State.
Most people can renew passports online and simply mail in a current photo. In-person appointments are needed for first-time applicants, as well as to renew passports that expired more than fifteen years ago or were lost.
But there are options for that group. "You can get an expedited passport within two weeks," suggests Pamela Wilson, owner of Denver Travel for thirty years.
For example, Colorado Passport Agency in Aurora processes expedited passports for people traveling within two weeks for an additional $60 charge — though online appointments are currently booked through that time frame.
While business remains low for the travel agency, Wilson says it is picking up. “There were days last year when the phone didn’t ring,” she recalls. “There was a trickle in December, but it’s far better now. I’m getting more on a daily basis than I did in a month last year.”
On April 2, all Coloradans sixteen and up will become eligible for vaccinations. But even with widespread vaccinations, Wilson expects COVID-19 precautions to remain a variable in travel.
“There will be airlines that will not let you fly without a vaccine,” Wilson predicts. “People who do not welcome the face masks and do not welcome social distancing — they should stay home, because they might be asked to leave.”
“The Department continues to strongly recommend U.S. citizens reconsider travel abroad and postpone their trips if possible,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State tells Westword via email. “We remind travelers that all air passengers two years of age or older arriving to the United States must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test or proof of recovery from COVID-19 before boarding. This order applies to both foreign nationals and U.S. citizens.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still advises people to avoid travel unless absolutely necessary. And many people are happy to wait.
“I haven’t had a passport in decades,” Sorensen confides. “I’m going to wait for this one to blow over before I get one again.”