The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the recalculating and rescheduling of countless events — perhaps none bigger than the 2020 census.
While the decennial count of every person in the country has been underway for many months, the U.S. Census Bureau shifted field operations due to the novel coronavirus.
Enumerators were scheduled to begin knocking on the doors of nonresponding households in May. For most areas, including Clark County, the start date was pushed to Aug. 11.
Tacoma is among a handful of areas where enumerators will start surveying people July 23. Toby Nelson, Pacific Northwest spokesman for the Census Bureau, said the reason for this soft launch is to “retest and refine processes.” The Census Bureau added new safety protocols to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Enumerators will wear face masks, practice social distancing, have the option to wear gloves and be asked to sanitize their hands multiple times a day.
Also new: Enumerators are prohibited from entering homes. In the past, enumerators could step inside if invited. Enumerators will have government-issued photo ID badges. (To verify whether someone is an enumerator, call 1-800-992-3530.)
The Census Bureau also moved its count of people at shelters, soup kitchens, mobile food vans and certain outdoor locations to Sept. 22-24. Nelson said Oct. 31 is “the absolute end date” for census work. During a news briefing last week, the bureau said there will be a delay in calculating the number of House representatives allotted to each state. The current legal deadline is Dec. 31 for the apportionment count and March 31, 2021 for redistricting data.
Local response rate
The Census Bureau is encouraging everyone to respond to the census over the next month to avoid having an enumerator visit their home.
At 71.5 percent, Clark County has the highest response rate in Washington and passed its 2010 self-response rate of 69.5 percent. Nelson said urban areas tend to have higher response rates than rural areas, but there are always exceptions to that trend; every known resident in the tiny town of North River, N.D., has completed the census.
So far, the vast majority of nationwide respondents, about 80 percent, responded online. Another 19 percent used the paper questionnaire that came in the mail and 1 percent responded by telephone.
The novel coronavirus threw a wrench in many groups’ efforts to promote the census.
“The Complete Count Committee for all intents and purposes kind of disappeared,” Vancouver City Councilor Ty Stober said.
He helped chair the local committee focused on engaging people in the census, which last met in January. After returning from an overseas trip at the beginning of March, Stober wanted to arrange another meeting with the group, but it never happened due to COVID-19 precautions.
While the county is leading the state’s census response, the city isn’t doing as well. It’s not surprising, Stober said, because the city has more of the historically undercounted populations — the people who could most benefit from federal dollars allocated as a result of an accurate census.
“At the same time it’s concerning that we’re struggling because every number counts,” he said.
Stober said he may reconvene the Complete Count Committee if Clark County begins to fall behind.
In April, the city hired Tony Ramos to be its public engagement manager. He organized recent listening sessions on race and has been working online to encourage people to complete the census. In a non-pandemic world, he’d be attending community events to deliver his message.
“We’re adapting. It’s definitely been an interesting onboarding,” he said.
Ramos said the city will encourage people to complete the census and avoid having a Census Bureau field worker visit their home.
The city is working with groups like the The Noble Foundation to engage minority populations and historically undercounted communities.
The Noble Foundation also moved its work online. It’s held virtual meetings, and supported people in completing the census by phone and Zoom video conference.
“It has complicated our work,” said Ophelia Noble, the nonprofit’s executive director.
Two months ago, The Noble Foundation opened a technical assistance center at Our Place Multicultural Center/Nuestra Casa Centro Multicultura in central Vancouver, but only one visitor can be inside at a time and the space has be to cleaned after each visit. Still, that one-on-one assistance is critical. Noble said once trusted community members educate people on the importance of the census, they’re more inclined to complete it.
As an essential service, Our Place remained open during quarantine and received funding to help people pay utilities, rent and food. Through that support, the nonprofit made connections and spoke with people about the census. Those who need help or have questions around the census can call 360-718-7454 to schedule a visit at the center, located at 2818 E. Fourth Plain Blvd.
While The Noble Foundation has been doing work around the census for a year and a half, Noble said it wasn’t prepared for COVID-19 and the lack of large gatherings. Before COVID-19, The Noble Foundation planned to hold events at the multicultural center. Hosting a table at events was to be a big part of getting the word out about the 2020 census.
“It’s been a challenge to meet the ongoing needs of a community where the census was a priority,” Noble said.