Pandemic could hurt census
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.