Census Day Arrives With US Almost Paralyzed by Coronavirus

The virus's spread has forced the U.S. Census Bureau to suspend field operations for a month, from mid-March to mid-April

In this March 19, 2020, file photo, the U.S. Census logo appears on census materials received in the mail with an invitation to fill out census information online in San Anselmo, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Census Day — the date used to determine where a person lives for the once-a-decade count — arrived Wednesday with a nation almost paralyzed by the spread of the coronavirus. But census officials vowed the job would be completed by its year-end deadline.

The virus's spread forced the U.S. Census Bureau to suspend field operations for a month, from mid-March to mid-April, when the hiring process would be ramping up for up to 500,000 temporary census takers. The bureau has delayed the start of counts for the homeless and people living in group quarters like college dorms and nursing homes, and pushed back the head count's deadline from the end of July to mid-August.

The Census Bureau is required by federal statute to send the president the counts that will be used to carve up congressional districts — known as apportionment — and draw state legislative districts by Dec. 31. Some groups are suggesting the deadline be pushed back, though it's mandated by federal law.

“We are laser-focused on the statute's Dec. 31 deadline for apportionment counts and population counts. We will continue to assess all of our operations to see if there are any changes that need to be made," Michael Cook, chief of the bureau's Public Information Office, said Tuesday.

The census started in late January in rural, native villages in Alaska, but the rest of the country wasn't able to begin answering the questionnaire until the second week of March, when the bureau's self-response website went live and people received notices in the mail that they could start answering the questions. But that was only a week before many governors and mayors started issuing stay-at-home orders to slow the virus's spread, greatly hindering in-person rallies, meetings and door-knocking to raise awareness about the census.

Experts say connecting with trusted community leaders in person is the best way to reach people in hard-to-count groups that may be wary of the federal government.

“Certainly when folks are anxious about the public health issue, and kids are away from school, and they're being away from work, it's a concern that the census isn't on top of people's mind as you would want it to be," said Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.


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The U.S. Census Bureau is spending $500 million on outreach efforts and relying on more than 300,000 nonprofits, businesses, local governments and civic groups to encourage participation in their communities. But those efforts have been hamstrung by the virus shutdown, so some are going digital.

Activist group Faith in Action held a Twitter chat to encourage people to fill out their census forms and Census Bureau Deputy Director Ron Jarmin went on Reddit to spread the word. Comcast NBCUniversal and Telemundo unveiled public service announcements Wednesday and said the company will provide $2 million in grants and in-kind contributions to community groups in hard-to-count areas.

Mayors also didn't miss an opportunity at Wednesday coronavirus briefings to emphasize the importance of filling out the census questionnaire to residents under stay-at-home orders.

“You have many people who are home, and there's still an opportunity for our families to complete those census forms," Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said in Orlando.

Two surveys by the Pew Research Center suggest the messaging was reaching an audience — at least before the coronavirus outbreak. Pew conducted two surveys, one in early January and another in late February and early March. During that time, those who had seen or heard something about the census grew from half to two-thirds of respondents.

Most census takers won't be sent out until late May to visit homes where people haven't yet answered the questions online, by telephone or by mailing back a paper questionnaire. Until then, the bureau is pushing people to respond so they won't have anyone knocking on their doors. As of Tuesday, more than 38% of households had already answered the questions.

The 2020 census will help determine how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets, as well as the distribution of about $1.5 trillion in federal spending.

Researchers at the Urban Institute worry that changed accommodations in response to the coronavirus may present a distorted picture of where people are living on Census Day. Some people left their usual residences to move in with parents or elderly relatives, escaped to vacation homes or had to move because they couldn't pay rent due to jobs lost during the pandemic, they said.

Urban Institute researchers said the Census Bureau needs more processing time to identify duplicate responses and offer additional guidelines about how people should respond when the traditional recommendation to answer where you are living on April 1 is no longer clear for some. They're asking that the Dec. 31 deadline be postponed, which would require an act of Congress.

“There's no way reliable counts are going to be generated by the end of December," said Robert Santos, vice president and chief methodologist at the Urban Institute. “It's implausible."


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