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Census effort inches along in Sonoma County amid turbulent 2020

The 2020 Census needs workers in Sonoma County. It also needs some extra time, thanks to a global pandemic that stopped the clock on this monumental, once-a-decade project.

Despite the stay-at-home orders triggered by the coronavirus outbreak, not to mention the deep economic recession and sustained street protests that have made this the most turbulent year in a lifetime, the U.S. Census Bureau has lurched forward in its mission to count every person living in the United States in 2020.

As of this weekend, nearly two out of three people in Sonoma County have responded to the census survey, slightly higher than the response rates for the state and nation.

Those numbers, not far behind the final counts from 2010, have to be considered encouraging under the circumstances.

The self-response phase of census collection began March 12, one day after the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic, and one day before Sonoma County banned gatherings of 250 or more people. Nothing has been the same since.

A mosaic of state and county shelter-in-place orders shut down social and commercial life in the U.S. But that didn’t really inhibit people from responding to the census questionnaire online - an option for the first time ever - or providing information through the mail or over the phone.

Sheltering has sharply impacted subsequent phases of the census, though. Field offices, including the Santa Rosa office that serves a region stretching from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border, were supposed to ramp up training and deployment March 1. The Santa Rosa office finally opened May 25.

One stage, which involves census takers dropping questionnaires at residences that don’t have traditional addresses, was scheduled to last from March 15 to April 17; it, too, began in late May. Joshua Green, media specialist for the U.S. Census Bureau, said 5,648 households were identified for this operation in Sonoma County, and that 87% have been served to this point.

The Census Bureau has yet to release the timeline for collecting data from homeless populations.

The final major phase of census gathering, and the most intensive, calls for a small army of “enumerators” go house to house, apartment to apartment, knocking on doors in a final bid to interview as many holdouts as possible. Originally scheduled for May 13 through July 31, this phase is now set to begin August 11 and wrap up Oct. 31.

There is opportunity here for people who have been laid off during the pandemic or seen their work hours reduced. The Census Bureau would like 1,000 or more new applicants for census taking jobs in Sonoma County, at a rate of $21 an hour, Green said. He wasn’t sure how many would end up being hired.

“We won’t know that until we know the total self-response number,” he said. “It would just be a waste of money if we were to hire people, and then they don’t have work to do.”

Meanwhile, county government is attempting to facilitate the process. Melissa Valle, communications and engagement coordinator for Sonoma County, said a committee has been meeting once a month for a year to address the census. The county is working with United Way of the Wine Country to encourage community leaders and advocacy groups to get the word out.

“Initially, we had plans for creating kiosks at libraries,” Valle said. “We wanted to do festivals and community meetings, looking to convene people in one place and help them fill out the census. But that’s not what we can do under COVID circumstances.”

Instead, Valle’s committee has put its energy into things like social media and radio spots on KSRO.

It isn’t hard to see where the need is. Within Sonoma County, response rates from residents of its cities range from 69% in Santa Rosa to 76.7% in Sebastopol. But it is much more challenging to collect census forms from remote rural residents who may have neither a sanctioned address (the bureau does not send forms to PO boxes) or a broadband internet connection.

“It’s accurate to say rural counties have historically lower rates,” Green said. “It’s harder to reach people there. Maybe they don’t hear as much about the census. But you can’t apply that to every place. I’ve been to Sebastopol. It’s a cute little town, with rural areas around it. But it had a high 2010 rate and it’s already pretty high this year.”

Isolation is, in fact, just one of the variables the Census Bureau says can make a particular census tract (California has 8,057 tracts in all) hard to count. Others include high rates of rental or vacant units, foreign-born and limited-English residents, poverty and unemployment.

The Census Bureau and the state of California released separate maps of hard-to-count tracts before the process began in 2020. According to the state’s map, the biggest hurdle in Sonoma County was expected to be the neighborhood just northwest of Coddingtown Mall, bounded by Guerneville Road, Coffey Lane, Piner Road and Highway 101. It has a hard-to-count index of 72, highest in the county.

Other neighborhoods targeted for a greater level of outreach include Roseland and Bellevue in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park just south of the expressway and the Springs area of Sonoma. Green emphasized these were projections, not based on current returns.

The question hanging in the air, of course, is whether it will be safe for census takers to interact with residents in August, when the final phase is set to begin.

Workers leaving forms in front of homes right now, Green said, are wearing proper PPE. But going door to door and conducting interviews throughout the day is a different story.

“I can’t answer you about what conditions will be like on August 11,” Green said. “I don’t think any human can answer that. I’m highly confident that if conditions remain as they are now, we can go forward.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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