How will coronavirus impact the 2020 US census as count gets underway?

By Obed Manuel

Tribune News Service

DALLAS — Churches, community events and other social spaces were set to play a key role in disseminating accurate information about the 2020 census through trusted community voices over the next few weeks.

But as the start of census self-responding coincides with the spread of the coronavirus and as health experts urge the practice of social distancing, organizations may soon find themselves having to improvise their outreach strategies.

And the Census Bureau’s former director believes that weakened outreach efforts could worsen the undercount of historically undercounted communities during the 2020 census, though census officials do have flexibility to alter their strategy to counting the U.S. population.

The spread of the coronavirus has made getting the word out about the 2020 census a lot harder and those working with the public will have to change their strategies, said John Thompson, former director of the Census Bureau who oversaw preparation for the 2020 census.

“Surely nobody wants to risk public health, so they’re going to have to think creatively about how they can get that done,” Thompson said.

Can the census be delayed?

The Census Bureau has some flexibility in terms of how it reacts to the coronavirus spread. For starters, Thompson said, it can push back the July 31 deadline for households to self-respond.

The bureau could also change its messaging to center around coronavirus spread and urging the public to respond to the census using the online, telephone or mail options to avoid having to send out enumerators, he added.

“But ultimately, there are some parts of the population that they’re going to have to reach by knocking on doors,” Thompson said. “There’s no way around it. You’re going to have to get people to talk to you somehow.”

The bureau is required by law to deliver its final population count to the president by Dec. 31, 2020. Pushing that deadline back, would require an action by Congress, Thompson said, adding that the bureau may have to request such an action if some major operations are delayed for too long.

“At this point, I do think they’ll be able to meet the Dec. 31 deadline, but it is hard to predict because we’re in uncharted territory,” Thompson said.

Outreach efforts could be weakened as more community events are canceled out of precaution, said Genesis Sanchez, Texas regional census campaign manager for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

A citizenship forum for immigrants set to be held this weekend in Houston was canceled on Wednesday, Sanchez said. A Census Bureau official was set to speak to the immigrant crowd at the event about the census, but now that chance is gone.

Sanchez said that groups that have historically been more difficult to count, like immigrants and communities of color, rely on that in-person communication to trust official government processes.

“It already felt like we were behind and that the bureau was relying heavily on community groups to get the word out,” Sanchez said. “People aren’t really quite sure what to do.”

Dallas County’s local outreach effort, led by marketing firm Alpha Business Images, focused much on bringing the census to neighborhoods with historically low census response rates. Residents in these areas tend to be black, Hispanic, children under the age of 5, low-income or immigrants.

The plan features deploying dozens and dozens of blockwalkers to neighborhoods. They plan on being friendly faces at community events. Organizers even have a van with a mobile hotspot that would do prize giveaways in these neighborhoods.

But that may have to change, said Sophia Johnson, president of Alpha Business Images, said last week, before Dallas County reported its first presumptive cases of novel coronavirus.

She added that her leadership team will have to devise a backup plan if coronavirus scares limit the amount of contact outreach workers can have with the public.

“If we end up having a public health issue where we cannot be as public, then our blockwalking dollars may end up being a television spot,” Johnson said.

This week, Johnson’s office directed questions about coronavirus procedures to the office of Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who did not respond to a request for comment.

Jenkins issued a state of local disaster for Dallas County Thursday night. Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson also declared a state of local disaster for the City of Dallas. Both declarations limit large public gatherings and both leaders urged the public to practice social distancing.

Sanchez, who has spent the past few weeks traveling around Texas conducting training sessions on outreach, said NALEO has asked its staff to limit travel and that she’s been asked to do training by video, if possible.

“Everyone is trying to figure out the parameters of what we can do with what we have,” Sanchez said. “Even if people and organizations continue with their events, the big warning is to stay away from big crowds. And who can blame families with children or older family members if they don’t show up?”

Staying away from each other is going to end up being one of the most effective tools to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, said Dr. William Schaffner, an expert on infectious diseases and professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University.

“This isn’t about stopping the spread anymore. This is about reducing the spread,” Schaffner said.

As more and more social gatherings are canceled, there’s no other option but to deal with the consequences, Schaffner said. The impact of community partnerships and outreach, Thompson said, was made clear between the 1990 and 2000 census.

Between those censuses, the Census Bureau added a community partnership effort aimed at building relationships in local communities.

“While this did not perfect the count, there were remarkable decreases in the undercount of non-white Hispanic populations from 1990 to 2000,” Thompsons said.

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