The U.S. Census Bureau couldn’t have predicted that a novel coronavirus would be spreading in the country just as officials gear up for the nationwide start of the 2020 Census on Thursday.
But advances in technology that the bureau is using may act as a buffer or even aid the mission to count everyone living in the United States as fears mount about the virus’ spread and large gatherings such as conferences and festivals are canceled across the country.
Training for census workers that used to happen entirely in-person is now mostly virtual. Workers who go door-to-door to record answers to the questionnaires will use smartphones that only they touch. If a local census office is closed because of the virus or public transportation disruption, operations can move to another office.
And this is the first decennial census for which the Census Bureau has been encouraging residents nationwide to fill out questionnaires online, which is less costly for the bureau. Nervousness about strangers coming to one’s house may mean more people take advantage of the online option.
“The design of the 2020 Census lends itself very, very well to a situation like the one we’re talking about in terms of the coronavirus,” said Fernando Armstrong, director of the Census Bureau’s Philadelphia Regional Office. "We have many ways to modify our operations and continue to carry out the mission we need to carry out with minimal or no interference or impact on the community.”
The bureau continues to remind residents that they don’t need to wait for a knock on the door from a census worker in a few months.
"You can go online and be done with it and do your civic duty,” Armstrong said. Residents also can fill out the census by phone or by mail.
Even if census workers do visit, they do not need to enter a home or make physical contact with residents, and they can conduct interviews over a home’s threshold.
Stephanie Reid, executive director of Philly Counts 2020, the city’s effort to make sure residents are counted, said she’s working with the city’s health department, which has not recommended that she cancel any planned outreach campaigns.
Philly Counts representatives, including Reid, hung census information on doorknobs in Strawberry Mansion on Monday afternoon. The city is developing a tool kit of ways to promote the census for people who can’t or don’t want to leave their homes, including calling, texting, and emailing friends and family reminding them to participate.
"If people are home and they’re bored, maybe they’re more likely to fill out the census,” Reid said.
Public health challenges such as coronavirus serve as a reminder of the importance of the population count, Armstrong said. Government officials need to make informed decisions about how to address epidemics.
“There’s no better way of being able to do that than to have accurate data” about where people live, the ages of residents, and other demographic information, he said.