Pandemic could hurt census

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WASHINGTON — As the first invitations to complete forms for the 2020 census land in mailboxes this week, federal and local leaders are scrambling to counter the coronavirus pandemic that poses a last-minute threat to a decade’s worth of preparation.

At the U.S. Census Bureau’s headquarters in Washington’s Maryland suburbs, officials this week set up a task force to devise plans for the outbreak. The coronavirus not only could hit census-takers and the people they are trying to tally, but could further imperil a census already facing enormous challenges to an accurate count.

In cities and towns, local officials were being forced to upend months of planning for campaigns to gin up the largest possible participation in the census — and ensure that communities get the federal dollars and political representation that will be determined for the next decade by this year’s population totals.

A spokesman for the bureau, Michael Cook, declined on Friday to describe contingency planning, saying only that the agency was working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local health authorities to protect its own workers and advise its field offices on “operational and programmatic aspects” of the head count.

Other census experts and former officials said the bureau might have to expand advertising that promotes online, telephone and mail responses to the census and revise its playbook for counting some populations affected by the outbreak. In a worst-case scenario, they said, the bureau could be forced to postpone some aspects of the count until the pandemic has eased.

“The Census Bureau always plans for the worst and hopes for the best,” said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant to groups promoting a complete census and an adviser on statistical issues for the Obama administration’s presidential transition team.

“But I think what’s happening now in terms of consequences of the epidemic is probably well beyond anything the bureau envisioned, even in its contingency planning.”

Demographers and veterans of past censuses said they were hopeful that the bureau could avoid the worst effects of the pandemic, partly because many back-end census operations and much of the count itself have been shifted to the internet, reducing personal contact among workers and respondents.

“By design, it’s social distancing,” Steve Jost, a former spokesman for the Census Bureau, said in a telephone interview. “People can do their civic duty and still keep their distance from their fellow citizens.”

But that goes only so far. The bureau itself offered a glimpse of coming challenges on Thursday, when it announced that it had scrapped the in-person part of a kickoff for the head count, set for Monday in Atlanta, “out of an abundance of caution.” The event would be recast as an online event later, officials stated.

The bureau has epidemic contingency plans that date at least to 2010, when that year’s count was briefly feared imperiled by a dangerous strain of influenza. But those plans appear not to have considered the kind of nationwide shutdown that the coronavirus pandemic seems poised to deliver.

The bureau’s announcement of a task force came amid growing questions about its ability to deal with a major disease outbreak. On Thursday, House Democrats on committees overseeing the census sent a letter asking Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for details of contingency plans.

That same day, the Commerce Department’s inspector general asked the bureau similar questions, including how the agency would react should residents “become reluctant or refuse to engage” with census takers for fear of catching the virus. The bureau’s public statements “provided little explanation” of its plans, the letter stated.

Even at its smoothest, the decennial census is among the most sprawling and complicated exercises in American society, mandated by the Constitution to count every person in the nation, whether in homes, prisons or under freeway viaducts; whether citizens or undocumented immigrants in hiding.

The 2020 census already was destined to be an even more daunting venture — the first ever conducted mostly online, in a deeply polarized nation where mistrust of the government and immigrants fearful of authorities could make an accurate count harder than in recent memory.

The coronavirus outbreak adds new layers of uncertainty, beginning with the efforts by thousands of civic groups and local governments to persuade their residents just to fill out the census form. This week the leaders of the Detroit 2020 census campaign, one of the nation’s most innovative efforts to boost census response, canceled a kickoff rally that was set for Monday at a local high school.

“We were planning to have 700  people there, passing out materials,” said Victoria Kovari, the campaign’s executive director. “We ordered thousands of posters for local businesses; we ordered cards. And we found out yesterday they closed the local schools.”

In Columbus, Ohio, a statewide campaign by civic and philanthropic groups to boost response has hit similar headwinds. “This morning I was supposed to meet with 99 Head Start directors,” said Tracy Nájera, the co-leader of the Ohio Census Advocacy Coalition, “and yesterday afternoon I got a call that the meeting would be much smaller, close to 40.

“I got to the session this morning, and there were eight. So it’s having a real and immediate impact.”

Both women said their groups are revising months of plans on the fly, canceling community events, shifting messages to social media and holding staff meetings by videoconference. The Ohio campaign, which had used grant money to plan town halls, block parties and other census-promotion events with 45 grassroots groups, now must search for ways to get the message out without drawing crowds.

At the federal level, the mechanics of the count itself also face challenges. While home- and apartment-dwellers can fill out census forms themselves, residents of group facilities are counted differently. Census takers who normally would visit nursing homes for individual interviews, to cite one example, now may not be allowed in, or may resist going for fear of infection.

The same is true for the half-million or more homeless persons, always one of the hardest populations to count, who are likely to be especially susceptible to the virus.

Full-time college students must be counted where they attend classes. But the shift to online courses caused by the pandemic has emptied dormitories and off-campus apartments in entire states, fouling plans to accurately count many of them.

“Our biggest challenge now is the universities,” said Kovari, of Detroit Census 2020. “There are tons of people living off campus who have gone home because the universities closed. And what about students in campus housing — what marker do they use? You can’t count them in real time, because they aren’t there.”

The initial tally via computer, phone or mail will be followed in May by an army of door knockers assigned to visit households that failed to respond. The bureau will have to shield those census takers from infection and persuade residents — who by definition already are the hardest to count — that they should open their doors to a stranger in the midst of a pandemic.

Should those hurdles prove hard to clear, the bureau has alternatives, experts said: It could tap a growing trove of records from other government agencies to fill in at least some data from missing respondents. In a pinch, it might be able to postpone census taking in difficult spots like homeless encampments until the worst of the pandemic passes.

But those and other stopgaps also risk endangering the census’s chief mandate — a truly accurate count of the population. “We have a sophisticated system in which the Census Bureau and researchers have very good estimates of what they think the population count will be,” Margo Anderson, a professor and historian of the census at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said in an interview. “And if the results don’t match the projections, I guarantee you there’ll be a spirited debate by communities that won’t think it was fair.”

Cook, the Census Bureau spokesman, said the agency has built leeway into its budget and planning to accommodate roadblocks like the pandemic. In a statement issued this week, officials said they have switched some field work from in-person meetings to telephone, and would adapt the bureau’s work when needed “to make sure we are getting the same population counted another way.”

And one former official said the bureau is contemplating an advertising pitch later this spring that would try to turn a coronavirus lemon into lemonade: When you’re confined to quarters waiting out a pandemic, filling out the census online isn’t a task — it’s a welcome break in the boredom.

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