Census says restart to field operations will be in phases

This April 5, 2020, photo shows a 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident in Detroit. The U.S. Census Bureau needs more time to wrap up the once-a-decade count because of the coronavirus, opening the possibility of delays in drawing new legislative districts that could help determine what political party is in power, what laws pass or fail and whether communities of color get a voice in their states. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) (Paul Sancya, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

ORLANDO, Fla. – The U.S. Census Bureau's return to field operations for the 2020 national head count will take place in phases based on a region's lockdown orders and the availability of protective gear against the new coronavirus, bureau officials told lawmakers late last week.

Census Bureau officials told members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform last Friday that there would be a phased start to the resumption of field operations on June 1. The spreading virus, and subsequent stay-at-home orders, forced the bureau in mid-March to halt field operations such as hiring and training, reaching out to college students in off-campus housing and dropping off paper questionnaires to households without traditional addresses.

The bulk of the field operations in which hundreds of thousands of census takers knock on the doors of homes where people haven't yet answered the questionnaire isn't starting until August, after the pandemic forced a delay from a May start.

The briefing with lawmakers comes as the Census Bureau is asking Congress for permission to push back timetables for releasing data used by states to draw congressional and legislative districts. Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham had been scheduled to update lawmakers a week ago but canceled at the last minute, according lawmakers, upsetting some Democrats on the committee who wanted further details about the request.

The 2020 count will be used to determine how many congressional seats each state gets and the distribution of $1 billion in federal funding.

On Monday, during a conference call to motivate New Yorkers to participate in the 2020 census, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, the chair of the oversight committee, said she was on board with the request but wanted a written plan from the bureau before moving ahead. The needed legislation authorizing the deadline changes will either be a stand-alone bill or a part of another round of coronavirus relief, she said.

“It's necessary, given what we are confronted with," said Maloney, a Democrat from New York.

Because the coronavirus has caused the cancellation of in-person outreach efforts, the Census Bureau is increasing the paid media budget from $240 million to $320 million, expanding the number of languages in paid media from 14 to 40 languages, and launching “hyper local” media outreach, Ali Ahmad, associate director for communications, told lawmakers.

The bureau also pushed back the deadline for finishing the once-a-decade head count from the end of July to the end of October. But further delays in field operations haven't been ruled out, bureau officials told lawmakers.

Bureau officials also told lawmakers that fewer people than expected are answering the census questionnaire by telephone — just 0.6% compared to the expected 6.8%. The bureau has acknowledged increased call wait times because of the need to socially distance at call centers set up to help people fill out the form.

As of Sunday, 53% of households had responded to the 2020 census, mostly via the Internet. Earlier this month, those who haven't yet responded were mailed paper questionnaires.


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