WASHINGTON -- Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Census Bureau planned to kick off in-person counting and outreach efforts that are key to the 2020 count on April 1, "Census Day."
Efforts to stop the spread of the virus scuttled those efforts, pushing a census process already rocked by controversy into unprecedented territory. Vulnerable communities already considered difficult to count -- young children, the elderly, rural residents and people of color -- face greater risk of being left out of the count, which is used to divvy up congressional representation, more than $1.5 trillion of federal spending and more.
People can still self-respond to the census questionnaire online, over the phone or by mail, but "everything else is critically affected because everything else requires people to go out and visit," said University of Chicago professor Colm O'Muircheartaigh.
"It was already challenged by the controversy last year of the citizenship question, which I think has damaged trust in a fair number of communities," O'Muircheartaigh said. "The hope was that by providing adequate training to (door knockers) and combining that with the campaign by trusted voices would have overcome that initial controversy."
The Census Bureau uses "Census Day" as the reference for counting everyone in the country, and planned to use it to start in-person counting and outreach efforts. Over the weekend, the agency announced it postponed all field operations and hiring through at least April 15, after previously delaying them through April 1.
Agency spokesman Michael Cook said staff will "continue to assess the current situation making sure we follow the guidance of national and local public health officials," and is looking at shaking up its plans in the next few weeks.
"The Census Bureau has operational contingencies in place to ensure that when staff and our facilities are affected, the work can still continue to be done to ensure we complete the 2020 census," Cook said.
The pandemic creates unprecedented challenges for the census, according to former Census Bureau Director Kenneth Prewitt, who oversaw the 2000 count.
Prewitt said prior crises have always been localized. "We have had storms, we have had fires and so on, and the Census Bureau is very good at getting Plan B going when Plan A doesn't work," he said.
"This is clearly a different game altogether. They are scrambling, of course, right now."