A week after starting its 2020 count for most of the U.S., the Census Bureau on Wednesday suspended field operations for two weeks out of concern about the health and safety of its workers and the U.S. public from the novel coronavirus.
Census Bureau officials said they were continuing to monitor all operations related to the once-a-decade head count amid the global pandemic. As of Wednesday, 11 million households had answered the census questions.
Most census workers won't head into the field until May, when they'll knock on the doors of homes that haven't turned in their questionnaires. But some workers are already in the field. They were primarily dropping off paper questionnaires at places with no fixed addresses and large numbers of seasonal workers, or preparing for counts in a few weeks of the homeless and people who live in group housing such as college dorms, nursing homes and prisons.
The Census Bureau is aiming to hire as many as 500,000 workers for the 2020 census, and so far has 31,000 workers on the payroll.
Census historian Margo Anderson called the move unprecedented.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of such a suspension, nationwide," said Anderson, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “We’re in uncharted territory on the census, as well as everything else since last Friday."
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the virus.
The 2020 census started for most of the U.S. last week when notifications started being mailed out and its self-response website went live. The head count officially kicked off in January in remote Alaska villages that are difficult to reach.
This is the first decennial census that has encouraged most people to answer the questionnaire online, although respondents can also answer by telephone or mailing back a form. The Census Bureau is hoping a strong self-response rate will decrease the need for census takers to knock on doors for face-to-face interviews this summer.
"The public is strongly encouraged to respond to the 2020 Census online using a desktop computer, laptop, smartphone, or tablet, and can also respond by phone or mail," the Census Bureau said in a statement.
In a statement, the chairwoman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform said lawmakers were monitoring the suspension of field operations and encouraging people to self-respond.
“By responding now, you will ensure that the Census Bureau does not need to send a census worker to your door," Democratic U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York said.
The decision to suspend field operations came just a few days after the Census Bureau announced it would delay sending out census takers to count students in off-campus housing and postpone sending workers to grocery stores and houses of worship where they help people fill out the questionnaire. The bureau also said the deadline for ending the 2020 census at the end of July could be adjusted as needed.
The 2020 census will help determine how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets, as well as the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal spending. By Dec. 31, the Census Bureau is required to give the president counts of state populations that are used in apportionment, the process of determining the number of congressional seats each state gets.
Arturo Vargas, the CEO of NALEO Educational Fund, a Latino advocacy group active in census outreach efforts, said he supported the Census Bureau's decision.
“Right now, the easiest way to make sure residents are counted is through self-response online, by phone, or by mail," Vargas said. “Emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic are precisely why our government needs accurate census data."
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