Coronavirus forces U.S. Census Bureau to suspend field operations

The Census Bureau said the step will “help protect the health and safety of the American public, Census Bureau employees, and everyone going through the hiring process for temporary census taker positions.”

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The Illinois Coalition for Immigration and Refugee Rights hosting a 2020 census outreach training event at Casa Michoacan in January.

The Illinois Coalition for Immigration and Refugee Rights hosted a 2020 census outreach training event at Casa Michoacan in January.

Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

Reaching an accurate 2020 Census count in Illinois was always going to be difficult, especially in underserved communities — but a global pandemic is now causing a bigger strain on outreach efforts.

The once-a-decade count, already underway, had been set to end by mid-summer. But fear of COVID-19 spreading through communities has forced the U.S. Census Bureau to suspend all field operations until April 1.

The Census Bureau said the step will “help protect the health and safety of the American public, Census Bureau employees, and everyone going through the hiring process for temporary census taker positions.”

The move doesn’t yet affect census takers, who are scheduled to start knocking on doors in mid-May, but it will impact the “group quarters” count. That already has started and applies to people in living in nursing homes, prisons or any other group living facilities.

The Census Bureau’s approach to limit human-to-human contact mirrors what local community organizations are already doing at a time when federal government recommends practicing “social distancing” and self-quarantine.

The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and its 63 partners, have worked for over a year to assure an accurate 2020 census count in Cook County and other collar counties. The groups have knocked on doors, hosted educational community events, and helped people fill out questionnaires.

But they are left rethinking how it can to draw awareness to the importance of completing the census in already hard-to-reach communities — areas that requires a lot of face-to-face interaction.

The results of the count will determine how federal funds are distributed and the number of seats a state has in the U.S. House of Representatives; those district maps are redrawn every 10 years, based on census results.

“Last week there was a lot of anxiety and frustration because people really didn’t know what was going on,” said Maria Fitzsimmons, census campaign director for The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “But this week, with knowing our limitations, people are optimistic with our new approaches.”

Fitzsimmons said they are now training their partners how to use Facebook Live for outreach, expanding their social media footprint and giving directions on how to operate phone banks. She also said they are toying with the idea of renting an RV and going to hard-to-count communities to provide questionnaire assistance in a contained environment.

“We don’t know what the future has in store for us with this virus and its overwhelming,” Fitzsimmons said. “The census was always going to be an uphill battle and now COVID-19 adds to that, but we embrace the challenge.”

Households have already started receiving information in the mail about how to respond to the 2020 census. Residents will be able to respond by phone, mail or online.

Wednesday, the U.S. Census Bureau said over 11 million households have responded online so far.

Earlier this week, the Census Bureau said in a statement the deadline to fill out the census will remain July 31, but it would adjust the date “if necessary as the situation evolves in order to achieve a complete and accurate count.”

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