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Will Coronavirus Impact the 2020 Census?

Completing surveys online or by phone early reduces need for door-to-door visits

A Census worker with forms

Goss Images / Alamy Stock Photo

A census worker makes a door-to-door visit.

En español | With more than 300 million people to count accurately, the 2020 census was always going to be a massive undertaking. The current outbreak of the novel coronavirus could add another challenge to that process.

On April 13, the Census Bureau announced it was pushing back several key deadlines in the 2020 count due to the coronavirus pandemic. The deadline for people to complete the survey forms for their households has been moved to October 31, 2020, more than two months later than its previous date of August 15. The agency also now won’t resume its full field operations — including door-to-door visits to people who have not completed the survey — until June 1, 2020. On May 4, the bureau said it was resuming some field operations. In some parts of the nation, census workers would begin going to neighborhoods to identify any new residences that may not already have been in the agency’s database. According to the bureau, those workers will not knock on doors. They will just update the database and leave census packets by the door for residents. The bureau previously had suspended field operations until April 15.

Perhaps most significantly, the Census Bureau said it will ask Congress to allow the agency to postpone its report on the final results of the count until April 30, 2021. The bureau previously was scheduled to present those results on December 31, 2020. The U.S. Constitution requires the nation to complete a full count of the population every 10 years, so pushing the final report into 2021 will require Congressional approval.

More than 48 percent of Americans households — 70 million homes — had completed their surveys as of April 13, the bureau reported.

Most American households in March started receiving in the mail their invitations to complete their census surveys, either online, by phone or through the mail. Because these options don't involve person-to-person contact, a high rate of early compliance would seemingly lessen any noticeable effect of COVID-19 as the 2020 census starts.

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"The safety of the American public and our employees is job one,” Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham said in a statement earlier this year about the effect the coronavirus might have. “We are working with national health authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the President's Task Force, as well as state and local health departments, to ensure all of their guidance is incorporated into our operations.

"Operations for the 2020 census and our ongoing household surveys have procedures built in that specifically anticipate epidemics and pandemics, and we will continue to work with the relevant authorities to keep those up to date,” Dillingham said in February of this year.

"The safety of the American public and our employees is job one."

— Steven Dillingham, Census Bureau Director

The census count determines where more than $675 billion of federal funding gets spent each year. That means Congress is keeping an eye on how the bureau responds to any obstacles the outbreak creates that might affect the overall count. Earlier this year, a group of 17 senators sent a letter to Dillingham asking about how the bureau is responding to the coronavirus.

"We urge the Census Bureau to be prepared to assess whether public health concerns about novel coronavirus are depressing census response rates, and to develop contingency plans for mitigating measures to help ensure a full and accurate population count,” the letter said. “Furthermore, if outbreaks of novel coronavirus occur in the United States, the Census Bureau must be prepared to provide guidance to census takers on appropriate health and safety precautions while conducting the census."

The bureau already was falling behind on its goals to hire part-time workers to help with the 2020 count. It is not yet known how the outbreak may affect the agency's ongoing hiring efforts.

Perhaps in a more fortunate coincidence, this year is the first time most people will have the opportunity to complete their forms online. Responding early — either online, by phone or by mail — is one way to fulfill your civic duties, both for helping the nation complete its count of residents and deterring the spread of the coronavirus.

Editor’s Note: This article originally was published on March 11, 2020. It has been updated with information about the new deadlines for the 2020 census count.

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